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Tag: Teutonic

Eco: The Nationalistic Hypothesis, 3


Athanasius Kircher (1602-80), his interpretation of the legendary sphere of Archimedes, using magnets to simulate the rotation of the planets. From Magnes, sive de Arte Magnetica, 1643, p. 305. 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.  


“Ideas similar to these were expressed by Schottel (Teutsche Sprachkunst, 1641), who celebrated the German language as the one which, in its purity, remained closest to the language of Adam (adding to this the idea that language was the expression of the native genius of a people).

Others even claimed that Hebrew had derived from German. They repeated the claim that their language had descended from Japheth, who, in this rendition, had supposedly settled in Germany.

The name of the exact locality changed, of course, to fit the needs of different authors; yet Japheth’s grandson, Ascenas, was said to have lived in the principality of Anhalt even before the confusio. There he was the progenitor of Arminius and Charlemagne.

In order to understand these claims, one must take into account the fact that, during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Protestant Germany rallied to the defense of the language of Luther’s Bible.

It was in this period that claims to the linguistic primacy of German arose, and many of these assumptions “should be seen within the context of Germany’s political fragmentation after the Thirty Years War. Since the German nation was one of the main forces capable of uniting the nation, its value had to be emphasized and the language itself had to be liberated from foreign influences” (Faust 1981: 366).

Leibniz ironized on these and other theories. In a letter of 7 April 1699 (cited in Gensini 1991: 113) he ridiculed those who wished to draw out everything from their own language–Becanus, Rudbeck, a certain Ostroski who considered Hungarian as the mother tongue, an abbé Francois and Pretorius, who did respectively the same for Breton and Polish.

Leibniz concluded that if one day the Turks and Tartars became as learned as the Europeans, they would have no difficulty finding ways to promote their own idioms to the rank of mother tongue for all humanity.

Despite these pleasantries, Leibniz was not entirely immune himself to nationalist temptations. In his Nouveaux essais (III, 2) he made a good-natured jibe at Goropius Becanus, coining the verb goropiser for the making of bad etymologies.

Still, he conceded, Becanus might not always have been entirely wrong, especially when he recognized in the Cimbrian, and, consequently, in Germanic, a language that was more primitive than Hebrew.

Leibniz, in fact, was a supporter of the Celto-Scythian hypothesis, first advanced in the Renaissance (cf. Borst 1957-63: III/1, iv, 2; Droixhe 1978).

In the course of over ten years collecting linguistic materials and subjecting them to minute comparisons, Leibniz had become convinced that at the root of the entire Japhetic stock there lay a Celtic language that was common to both the Gauls and the Germans, and that “we may conjecture that this [common stock] derives from the time of the common origin of all these peoples, said to be among the Scythians, who, coming from the Black Sea, crossed the Danube and the Vistula, and of whom one part may have gone to Greece, while the other filled Germany and Gaul” (Nouveaux essais, III, 2).

Not only this: Leibniz even discovered analogies between the Celto-Scythian languages and those which we would today call the Semitic languages, due, he conjectured, to successive migrations.

He held that “there was nothing that argues either against or for the idea of a single, common origin of all nations, and, in consequence, of one language that is radical and primitive.”

He admitted that Arabic and Hebrew seemed closer than others, their numerous alterations notwithstanding. He concluded, however, that “it seems that Teutonic has best preserved its natural and Adamitic aspect (to speak like Jacques Böhm [sic]).”

Having examined various types of German onomatopoeia, he finally concluded that the Germanic language seemed most primitive.

In presenting this scheme in which a Scythian language group progressively diffused throughout the Mediterranean world, and in distinguishing this group from the other group of southern or Aramaic languages, Leibniz designed a linguistic atlas.

Most of the conjectures in Leibniz’s own particular scheme were, in the end, erroneous; nevertheless, in the light of comparative linguistic work which would come afterwards, he had some brilliant intuitions (cf. Gensini 1990: 41).”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 99-102.

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.

Hades, Nifelhel, Put, Underworld.

“There was no Heaven for the Babylonian dead.

All mankind were doomed to enter the gloomy Hades of the Underworld, “the land of darkness and the shadow of death; a land of darkness, as darkness itself; and of the shadow of death, without any order, and where the light is darkness,” as Job exclaimed in the hour of despair, lamenting his fate.

This gloomy habitation of the dead resembles the Greek Hades, the Teutonic Nifelhel, and the Indian Put. No detailed description of it has been found.

The references, however, in the Descent of Ishtar and the Gilgamesh epic suggest that it resembled the hidden regions of the Egyptians, in which souls were tortured by demons who stabbed them, plunged them in pools of fire, and thrust them into cold outer darkness where they gnashed their teeth, or into places of horror swarming with poisonous reptiles.

Ishtar was similarly tortured by the plague demon, Namtar, when she boldly entered the Babylonian Underworld to search for Tammuz. Other sufferings were, no doubt, in store for her, resembling those, perhaps, with which the giant maid in the Eddic poem Skirnismal was threatened when she refused to marry Frey, the god of fertility and harvest:

Trolls shall torment thee from morn till eve

In the realms of the Jotun race,

Each day to the dwellings of Frost giants must thou

Creep helpless, creep hopeless of love;

Thou shalt weeping have in the stead of joy,

And sore burden bear with tears….

May madness and shrieking, bondage and yearning

Burden thee with bondage and tears.

In like manner, too, the inhabitants of the Indian Hell suffered endless and complicated tortures.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

Gods, Goddesses, Demons

” … In the early stages of Sumerian culture, the gods and goddesses who formed groups were indistinguishable from demons. They were vaguely defined, and had changing shapes. When attempts were made to depict them they were represented in many varying forms. Some were winged bulls or lions with human heads; others had even more remarkable composite forms. The “dragon of Babylon”, for instance, which was portrayed on walls of temples, had a serpent’s head, a body covered with scales, the fore legs of a lion, hind legs of an eagle, and a long wriggling serpentine tail. Ea had several monster forms. The following description of one of these is repulsive enough:–

The head is the head of a serpent,

From his nostrils mucus trickles,

His mouth is beslavered with water;

The ears are like those of a basilisk,

His horns are twisted into three curls,

He wears a veil in his head band,

The body is a suh-fish full of stars,

The base of his feet are claws,

The sole of his foot has no heel,

His name is Sassu-wunnu,

A sea monster, a form of Ea.

R.C. Thompson’s Translation.

Even after the gods were given beneficent attributes to reflect the growth of culture, and were humanized, they still retained many of their savage characteristics. Bel Enlil and his fierce son, Nergal, were destroyers of mankind; the storm god desolated the land; the sky god deluged it with rain; the sea raged furiously, ever hungering for human victims; the burning sun struck down its victims; and the floods played havoc with the dykes and houses of human beings.

In Egypt the sun god Ra was similarly a “producer of calamity,” the composite monster god Sokar was “the lord of fear”. Osiris in prehistoric times had been “a dangerous god,” and some of the Pharaohs sought protection against him in the charms inscribed in their tombs.

The Indian Shiva, “the Destroyer”, in the old religious poems has also primitive attributes of like character.

The Sumerian gods never lost their connection with the early spirit groups. These continued to be represented by their attendants, who executed a deity’s stern and vengeful decrees. In one of the Babylonian charms the demons are referred to as “the spleen of the gods”–the symbols of their wrathful emotions and vengeful desires.

Bel Enlil, the air and earth god, was served by the demons of disease, “the beloved sons of Bel,” which issued from the Underworld to attack mankind. Nergal, the sulky and ill-tempered lord of death and destruction, who never lost his demoniac character, swept over the land, followed by the spirits of pestilence, sunstroke, weariness, and destruction.

Anu, the sky god, had “spawned” at creation the demons of cold and rain and darkness. Even Ea and his consort, Damkina, were served by groups of devils and giants, which preyed upon mankind in bleak and desolate places when night fell. In the ocean home of Ea were bred the “seven evil spirits” of tempest–the gaping dragon, the leopard which preyed upon children, the great Beast, the terrible serpent, &c.

In Indian mythology Indra was similarly followed by the stormy Maruts, and fierce Rudra by the tempestuous Rudras.

In Teutonic mythology Odin is the “Wild Huntsman in the Raging Host.”

In Greek mythology the ocean furies attend upon fickle Poseidon.

Other examples of this kind could be multiplied.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

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