The Hebrew roots of the English language.
A story told by the Greek historian, Herodotus, introduces another contestant with a claim to priority as the first natural language. Less wellknown than the Tower of Babel story, it purports to give the results of an experiment into the origin of language by the Egyptian ruler, Psammetichus. Briefly, the story is as follows:
Psammetichus, finding that mere inquiry failed to reveal that which was the
original race of mankind, devised an ingenious method of determining the
matter. He took at random, from an ordinary family, two newly born infants,
and gave them to a shepherd to be brought up amongst his flocks,
under strict orders that no one should utter a word in their presence. They
were to be kept by themselves in a lonely cottage, and the shepherd was to
bring in goats from time to time, to see that the babies had enough milk to
drink, and to look after them in any other way that was necessary. All these
arrangements were made by Psammetichus because he wished to find out
what word the children would first utter, once they had grown out of their
meaningless baby-talk. The plan succeeded; two years later the shepherd,
who during that time had done everything he had been told to do, happened
one day to open the door of the cottage and to go in, when both children,
running up to him with hands outstretched, pronounced the word
The shepherd informed Psammetichus, who immediately had the children brought to him, and, when he himself heard them say becos, he at once set about trying to find out to what language the word belonged. His inquiries soon revealed that becos was Phrygian for bread, whereupon the Egyptian ruler was led to admit "the superior antiquity of the Phrygians," (The Histories 2.2 [Penguin Books, 1972, rpt. 1988], pp. 129-30.)
Isaac E. Mozeson's The Word starts from the assumption that the myth of a single language spoken by all mankind at some distant time in the prehistorical past is literally true. "Let us remove the sands of millennia. We are deep in the valley of Shinar," Mozeson writes, "reconstructing the Tower of Babel - one brick, one word at a time" (p. 1). Ignoring Mozeson's ominous metaphorical invitation to reconstruct the Tower of Babel, we note that the thesis underlying Mozeson's most unusual dictionary of English etymology is that Hebrew is that Ursprache, the one original language from which all others derive. Mozeson does not mention Herodotus' account of the claim of Phrygian to priority over all other languages; however, judging by the ingenuity of his argumentation in the book under review, he would no doubt be able to explain away the Phrygian claim handily. He would surely aver that the word becos in Herodotus' story is not Phrygian for bread but really Hebrew, probably a slightly deformed uttering of bakos (in the cup), as the children asked for milk. For Mozeson truly believes that "[o]nly after mastering Hebrew can a person fully understand words in English, Basque, or Swahili" (p.3) - or in any other language.
Mozeson's argument with traditional philology is strident in the extreme. His title uses the word "reveals" because he alleges that there has been a conspiracy to conceal the truth about the English language - the truth, that is, about its Hebrew roots. But only readers who take the Tower of Babel story literally, and assume that the single language referred to there is Hebrew, are likely to believe the claim advanced in the "Fore-Word" of this book that if you read on "You will soon know that you've never heard a word that wasn't Hebrew." I, for one, have read on, and I am certainly not convinced. Though Mozeson admits that many English words still escape his net, he promises a second edition which will include the words omitted in the present one. For the benefit of readers who may not be familiar with the orthodox brand of comparative philology that Mozeson is seeking to discredit, some background is in order.
Today, most scholars believe that neither Phrygian (an extinct language spoken by the people of Phrygia in central Asia Minor around 1200 B.C.E.), nor Hebrew, nor Egyptian (also extinct), nor any other language, can claim with any certainty to be the oldest or the original of languages. The best that comparative philology - a humanistic science slightly over two hundred years old - can do is to reconstruct the forms and structures that underlie languages related by internal factors such as phonology, morphology, lexis, and syntax, and by external factors such as geography and economic and political history. Let it be said at the outset that much remains speculative and controversial in this domain of knowledge. What Voltaire is reported to have said about philology still seems to be the case: it is a science in which it sometimes seems that consonants count for little and vowels count for nothing. And yet, a great edifice of scholarship - not a Tower of Babel but an open, critical, scholarly construct - has been built up by scholars around the globe.
Some of the main language families hypothesized by these scholars include the Sino-Tibetan family (usually subdivided into the Tibeto-Burman, Chinese, and Thai subfamilies); the Indo-European family (still represented today by dialects or branches such as Indic and Iranian, Greek, Armenian, Slavic, Baltic, Albanian, Celtic, Italic, and Germanic; and including two branches of now-dead languages, Hittite and Tocharlan); the Hamito-Semitic (or Afroasiatic) family; the Uralic and Altaic (or Ural-Altaic) family; the Finno-Ugric (a subdivision of the Uralic group of tongues); and others. The Semitic language family includes living and dead languages such as Akkadian, Arabic, Coptic, Hebrew, Moabite, Phoenician, Syriac, and Ugaritic.
Modern English, as a Germanic language, still has much in common with modern German, Dutch, and the modern Scandinavian languages. Old English (the form of the language from around 700-1100 C.E.) was even more like German in its vocabulary and syntax. The principal languages, from which English has borrowed vocabulary, idioms, and even syntactic structures, are Greek, Latin, and French - especially French, which left a deep and lasting imprint on English after the Norman Conquest of 1066 and throughout most of what is known as the Middle English period (c. 1100-1500 C. E.), when French became the language of high culture and religious and secular English officaldom. The latter highly unusual and formative episode of French dominance in the history of English (about which Mozeson has nothing to say) lasted until the reemergence of English in the late fourteenth century.
As the reader will observe, according to the above sketch of linguistic affiliations, Hebrew and English have no direct contact. Nevertheless, because of the influence of the Bible and Judeo-Christian culture on the English language, it is clear that the imprint of Hebrew on English is more significant than that of such Semitic languages as Arabic or Amharic. The literature on the entire subject of language families in general, and on the history of English in particular, is vast.(1)
Without regard for the work of previous tillers of this ample plot ground, and, in the spirit of Voltaire, without much regard for consonants or vowels that stand in the way, Mozeson claims to have traced over 20,000 English words to Hebrew roots. Many of the associations drawn by him between Hebrew and English words are, at the very least, interesting, often entertaining, and some might even be plausibly adduced as evidence of a possible genetic affiliation between the languages (e.g., see the entries for crush, cry, sore, etc.); but, aside from the cultural chauvinism and religious passion, what is Mozeson really shouting about? Do the English words navy and navigate really have anything to do with the Hebrew naivekh, as Mozeson alleges? Would it not be more pertinent to acknowledge the information provided by the American Heritage Dictionary, that Latin navis (ship) and Latin navem agere (to drive a ship) are the obvious etymons of navy and navigate, respectively? Mozeson's free-wheeling entries, proposing a connection between origin and ayin (p. 118), sparrow and zippor (p. 166), and wet and ratov (p. 194), are also much less convincing than the older etymologies for these words.(2)
Mozeson's book is passionate. He also has a sense of humor. The reader will enjoy the frequent flashes of (pseudo-) recognition. And, even though the book does not add to our knowledge of the origins of the English language, it will make readers pay attention to the sound and meaning of words in ways that they have not thought about before. The tone and spirit of triumphalism in this book, however, is disturbing; it does not make for rigorous, objective, scientific, and historically informed inquiry.
For Mozeson, Hebrew seems to have no history, no Greek or Persian loan words, no kinship with other attested ancient Semitic languages. To be sure, Claiborne's more conventional and not very precise etymological dictionary also sometimes makes fanciful etymological flights, to account for the approximately 300,000 English words that its Indo-European roots can allegedly explain. But the crucial difference is that Mozeson's hypothesis is supported exclusively by the weak evidence of unsystematic, fast and loose play with the consonants and vowels of the vocabularies of English and Hebrew, and not by the weighty, systematic evidence of history and geography, and the demonstrable systematic, morphological, and syntactic affinities between English and its hypothetical Indo-European ancestor - evidence gathered over hundreds of years by scholars in many lands, conversant with many languages.
To provide readers with an idea of what traditional comparative philology does - and, therefore, with an idea of what Mozeson would really have to do next if he wished to add substance to his claim that English derives from Hebrew - I shall summarize briefly Grimm's Law and Verner's Law, two of the most important philological laws explaining the history and development of English in the context of the Germanic branch of the Indo-European language family.
In 1822, Jakob Grimm (the same Grimm who, together with his brother Wilheim, collected and published German folk tales) proposed an explanation for certain systematic differences observed among the Indo-European languages. Grimm's Law (also known as "The First Consonant Shift") identified three successive changes in the pronunciation of certain Indo-European (IE) consonants by speakers of the Germanic (Gmc) branches of the language. The changes which Grimm identified explain why English speakers pronounce certain words differently than French, Greek, Italian, and other Indo-European-based language speakers. The cause of the changes which Grimm studied is unknown, but the "substratum theory" is a plausible explanation. According to this theory, a group of non-Indo European speakers who were learning the language substituted their own sounds for the Indo-European sounds that were un familiar to them - e.g., if their language had no aspirated stops (like the "pu" in pull), but did have voiced fricatives (like the "f" in fish), they might have changed IE aspirated stops to voiced fricatives, setting the whole system of consonant shifts in motion.(3)
Thus, sometime between 1000-400 B.C.E., at the beginnings of Primitive Germanic, the following changes occurred, in the following sequential stages: 1) IE aspirated voiced stops bh, dh, gh > [the symbol ">" should be read as "became" or "developed into"] Germanic (Gmc) voiced fricatives [beta], [delta], [gamma] (later > b, d, g); 2) IE voiceless stops p,t,k > Gmc fricatives f, [theta], and x [ > h initially]; and 3) IE voiced stops, b, d, g > Gmc voiceless stops p, t, k. These changes explain the difference between the English-German-based words like father, fish, brother, thou, and three, compared to non-Germanic Latin words like pater, piscis, frater, tu, and tres, respectively.
In 1875, the Danish scholar, Karl Verner, advanced a theory to explain certain exceptions to Grimm's Law that had been troubling philologists. As we have just seen (stage 2 above) Grimm's Law maintained that the IE voiceless stops p, t, k became Gmc voiceless fricatives f, [theta], x [or h]. But, in some Germanic words we find the voiced fricatives [beta], [delta], [gamma] (or their later developments) instead of f, [theta], x [or h]. For example, we would expect the |t' in Latin pater and Greek pater to correspond to [|theta'] [theta: [|theta']]in Germanic forms of the Indo-European word (*)pater, but instead we find Gothic fadar (the'd' here representing the voiced interdental fricative [delta]), Icelandic fadir, and Old English foeder (the'd'in foeder is a later development of an earlier [delta]; the fact that Modern English |father' has an [delta] sound in place of a [d] sound is a later development). So it would appear that, contrary to Grimm's Law, IE |t' sometimes became [delta] instead of [theta].
Verner's Law explained this seeming anomaly. He noticed that Proto-Germanic voiceless fricatives (f, [theta], x, and s) became voiced fricatives ([beta] [delta] [gamma] unless they were prevented from doing so by any one of the following three conditions:
i) being the first sound in a word;
ii) being next to another voiceless sound; or
iii) having the IE stress on the immediately preceding syllable.
To return to the example of the English word father, and filling in the steps down to Old English: the Indo-European sourced word pater (which also gave us, independently, the Latin word pater) developed into the Germanic fa[theta]er, fa[delta]er, and then fa[delta]er, the West Germanic fader, and the Old English fa[delta]er. Without going into further details, let it simply be stated that Verner's Law explains such anomalies of English grammar as the was-were and dead-death alternations.
If all this seems terribly complicated, that is because the history of the growth and development of the English language - if approached in a sound scientific manner - is a very complicated subject indeed. Until Mr. Mozeson can adduce general laws or principles of change within Hebrew in its different phases and among and between Hebrew and any of its supposed descendants to match the rigor of Grimm's Law and Verner's Law, his suggested Hebrew etymologies for English words will remain amusing but unconvincing. In fact, he would probably do best to leave English alone for awhile and go back to his Greek, Hebrew, Latin, and Sanskrit grammars, and work from there.
A final note: for profound and stimulating philosophical reflections on the endlessly fascinating and difficult question of the origin of language, one may turn to the work of Eugen Rosenstock-Huessy, a Christian theologian, converted from Judaism, who is well-known to many readers of this journal for his correspondence with Franz Rosenzweig. In a book called The Origin of Speech (1981), Rosenzweig-Huessy advances an existentialist claim - theoretically intriguing and highly plausible, given the lack of empirical evidence - regarding the priority of the imperative mood in the prehistory of all modern languages. His speculative sketch of a key to all grammars - linking what he calls the dramatic, lyrical, epical, and logical modes of discourse to the imperative, subjunctive, narrative, and classifying grammatical moods, respectively - with each of these in turn corresponding to a grammatical person: first person singular, first person plural, third person plural, and non-finite forms infinitives, participles, verbal nouns), respectively - takes us beyond the entertaining but relatively trivial search for first roots J(Ibid., pp. 68-73 et passim). Instead, it addresses in a stimulating and thought-provoking manner the really important question of how and why human beings began to speak in the first place.
(1)The interested reader might find it useful o consult the following excellent brief essays readily available in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (1969): Morton W. Bloomfield, "A Brief History of the English." Language," and Calvert Watkins, "The Indo-European Origin of English." The American Heritage Dictionary also includes an appendix of reconstructed Indo-European roots to which most of the words listed in the dictionary are traced; and, in 1986, Houghton Mifflin published a much expanded version of this appendix as a separate American Heritage Dictionary of Indo European Roots, edited by Calvert Watkins. Another worthwhile and readily available book that will help readers put Mozeson's sensationalistic claims in perspective is Robert Claiborne's The Roots of English: A Reader's Handbook of Word Origins (New York: Times Books, 1989). This is a good non-technical attempt to trace English vocabulary back to Indo-European. Claiborne's The Roots of English is especially relevant to our present purpose because it is organized as a dictionary, with alphabetical entries of Indo-European roots and an index of English words, much the same as Mozeson's The Word - except that Mozeson's roots are Hebrew!
To be sure, certain aspects of the Indo-European hypothesis are still being debated and some scholars are still at work trying to find a genetic relationship between Hebrew and English (i.e., between the distant ancestors of these two languages). In a recent unpublished paper entitled "Colonial American Belief in Hebrew as the Primal Language," presented to the conference on "Hebrew and the Bible in Colonial America" at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire, May 22 1990, Professor R.W. Wescott offers a brief synopsis of some of the arguments for a Hebrew-English connection. Among the recent studies along these same lines that Wescott cites is Allan R. Bomhard's Toward Proto-Nostratic: A New Approach (Amsterdam and Philadelphia, Pa.: John Benjamin's Publishing Co., 1984). Bomhard's wide-ranging and highly speculative study attempts to connect Prosto-Indo-European language forms with so-called Proto-Afroasiatic forms (the Proto-Afroasiatic group of languages includes the Semitic, Egyptian, Berber, Cushitic, Omotic, and Chadic families). Bomhard, Wescott, and others are approaching the subject in a manner that contrasts markedly with Mozeson's. However, as Alan S. Kaye and Eugene Helimski note in their reviews of Bomhard's book (in Language, 61 [1985): 887-91 and Journal of the American Oriental Society, 107 [19871: 97-100, respectively), the results so far are not particularly convincing. I am grateful to Mr. Lippman Bodoff, Assistant Editor of JUDAISM, f()r bringing Prof. Wescott's essay, to my attention). (2.) The etymologies repeated in the American Heritage Dictionary and by Claiborne trace these words to Indo-European [Er-.sup.1], [Sper-.sup.3], and [Wed-.sup.1], respectively. (3.) For those unfamiliar with the technical terms and symbols that linguists and philologists use to describe sounds, a few guidelines will be helpful. Aspirated sounds are pronounced with a puff of air, as in the "pu" of "pull." Fricatives or continuants (these are synonomous terms) are sounds which can be extended in pronunciation, as opposed to "stops" which cannot (cp. the fricative "f" vs. the stop "p"). "Voiced" sounds are ones whose pronunciation involves vibration of the vocal chords. All vowels are by definition "voiced;" but even some consonants are. Thus, the difference between "b," "d," "g," and "p,", "t," "k," which are voiced and unvoiced sounds respectively, can be heard - or felt - if they are pronounced with one's hands over one's ears; "b," "d," and "g" produce a vibration of the vocal chords ("voicing") that is absent in the pronunciation of "p," "t," and "k."
On symbols: "ae" (a Roman letter form known as "ligature a-e" or by its Anglo-Saxon name as "ash") is pronounced like the vowel in |hand'; b (called "thorn" in Anglo-Saxon) is pronounced either like the "th" in "thin" or the "th" in "this," depending on its position in the word; o (Greek theta) represents the "th" sound in "thin"; |(an "ictus" or stress mark) marks where the stress - i.e., crest of loudness in pronounciation - on a word falls;- (called a "macron") indicates a long vowel; a, called "schwa" (as in Hebrew), represents the middle vowel in "but." The symbols [beta], [delta], and [gamma], represent the following sounds respectively: a sound between "b" and "v," pronounced with continuous vibration of the lips; the sound represented by the "th" in this; and a sound like the "g" in "girl" but uttered continuously, with a simultaneous gargling sound in the back of the throat. The "x" represents a fricative sound pronounced either in the back of the throat or across the palate, depending on its position in the word (cp. German nicht vs. nacht.)
(*) indicates that the word or form is unattested, but we hypothesize that it existed.