All human languages are animated by a secret spirit, an immanent soul. Over the millennia, they have developed within them their own potency, even without the participating knowledge of the fleeting peoples who speak them. In the case of ancient languages, such as Sanskrit, Egyptian, Avestic, Hebrew (biblical), Greek (Homeric), Latin, or Arabic, this spirit, soul, and other powers are still at work, many centuries after their apogee, albeit often in a hidden form. The keen, patient observer can still try to find the breath, the strength, the fire, well in evidence in ancient, famous pages or left buried in neglected works. One may sometimes succeed, unexpectedly, to find pearls, and then contemplate their special aura, their glowing, sui generis energy.
The innumerable speakers of these languages, all of them appearing late and disappearing early in their long history, could be compared to ephemeral insects, foraging briefly in the forest of fragrant, independent and fertile language flowers, before disappearing, some without having produced the slightest verbal honey, others having been able by chance to distill some rare juice, some suave sense, from time to time.
From this follows, quite logically, what must be called the phenomenal independence of languages in relation to the men who speak and think them.
Men often seem to be only parasites of their language. It is the languages that « speak » the people, more than the people speak them. Turgot said: « Languages are not the work of a reason present to itself.”
The uncertain origin and the intrinsic ‘mystery’ of languages go back to the most ancient ages, far beyond the limited horizon that history, anthropology and even linguistics are generally content with.
Languages are some kind of angels of history. They haunt the unconscious of men, and like zealous messengers, they help them to become aware of a profound mystery, that of the manifestation of the spirit in the world and in man.
The essence of a language, its DNA, is its grammar. Grammar incorporates the soul of the language, and it structures its spirit, without being able to understand its own genius. Grammatical DNA is not enough to explain the origin of the genius of language. It is also necessary to take the full measure of the slow work of epigenesis, and the sculpture of time.
Semitic languages, to take one example, are organized around verbal roots, which are called « triliters » because they are composed of three radical letters. But in fact, these verbs (concave, geminated, weak, imperfect,…) are not really « triliters ». To call them so is only « grammatical fiction », Renan saidi. In reality, triliteral roots can be etymologically reduced to two radical letters, with the third radical letter only adding a marginal nuance.
In Hebrew, the biliteral root פר (PR) carries the idea of separation, cut, break. The addition of a third radical letter following פר modifies this primary meaning, and brings like a bouquet of nuances.
Thus, the verbs : פּרד (parada, to divide), פּרה (paraa, to bear fruit), פּרח (paraha, to bloom, to bud, to burst),ּ פּרט (paratha, to break, to divide), פּרך (parakha, to crumble, to pulverize), פּרם (parama, to tear, to unravel), פּרס (paraça, to break, to divide), פּרע (para’a, to detach from, to excel), פּרץ (paratsa, to break, to shatter), פּרק (paraqa, to tear, to fragment), פּרר (parara, to break, to rape, to tear, to divide), פּרשׂ (parassa, to spread, to unfold), פּרשׁ (parasha, to distinguish, to declare).
The two letters פּ et ר also form a word, פּר, par, a substantive meaning: « young bull, sacrificial victim ». There is here, in my view, an unconscious meaning associated with the idea of separation. A very ancient, original, symbolic meaning, is still remembered in the language: the sacrificial victim is the one which is ‘separated’ from the herd, who is ‘set apart’.
There is more…
Hebrew willingly agrees to swap certain letters that are phonetically close. Thus, פּ (P) may be transmuted with other labials, such as בּ (B) or מ (M). After transmutation, the word פּר, ‘par’, is then transformed into בּר, ‘bar’, by substituting בּ for פּ. Now בּר, ‘bar‘, means ‘son’. The Hebrew thus makes it possible to associate with the idea of ‘son’ another idea, phonetically close, that of ‘sacrificial victim’. This may seem counter-intuitive, or, on the contrary, well correlated with certain very ancient customs (the ‘first born son sacrifice’). This adds another level of understanding to what was almost the fate of Isaac, the son of Abraham, whom the God YHVH asked to be sacrificed.
Just as פּ (P) permuted with בּ (B), so the first sacrificial victim (the son, ‘bar‘) permuted with another sacrificial victim (‘par‘), in this case a ram.
The biliteral root בּר, BR, ‘bar‘, gave several verbs. They are: בּרא (bara‘, ‘to create, to form’; ‘to be fat’), בּרה (baraa, ‘to eat’), בּרח (baraha, ‘to pass through, to flee’), בּרך (barakha, ‘to kneel, to bless’), בּרק (baraq, ‘lightning’), בּרר (barara, ‘to purify, to choose’).
The spectrum of these meanings, while opening the mind to other dimensions, broadens the symbolic understanding of the sacrificial context. Thus the verb bara‘, ‘he created’, is used at the beginning of Genesis, Berechit bara’ Elohim, « In the beginning created God…. ». The act of ‘creating’ (bara‘) the Earth is assimilated to the begetting of a ‘son’ (bar), but also, in a derivative sense, to the act of fattening an animal (‘the fatted calf’) for its future sacrifice. After repetition of the final R, we have the verb barara, which connotes the ideas of election and purification, which correspond to the initial justification of the sacrifice (election) and its final aim (purification). The same root, slightly modified, barakha, denotes the fact of bringing the animal to its knees before slaughtering it, a more practical position for the butcher. Hence, no doubt, the unconscious reason for the late, metonymic shift to the word ‘bless’. Kneeling, a position of humility, awaiting the blessing, evokes the position taken by the animal on the altar of sacrifice.
Hebrew allows yet other permutations with the second radical letter of the word, for example in the case cited, by substituting ר with צ. This gives: פּצה (patsaa, ‘to split, to open wide’), פּצח (patsaha, ‘to burst, to make heard’), פּצל (patsala, ‘to remove the bark, to peel’), פּצם (patsama, ‘to split’), פצע (patsa’a, ‘to wound, to bruise’). All these meanings have some connotation with the slaughter that the sacrifice of the ancient Hebrew religion requires, in marked contrast to the sacrifice of the Vedic religion, which is initiated by the grinding of plants and their mixing with clarified butter.
Lovers of Hebrew, Sanskrit, Greek, or Arabic dictionaries can easily make a thousand discoveries of this nature. They contemplate curiously, then stunned, the shimmering of these ancient languages, sedimenting old meanings by subtle shifts, and feeding on multiple metaphors, for thousands of years.
Unlike Semitic languages, the semantic roots of Chinese or the ancient language of Egypt are monosyllabic, but the rules of agglutination and coagulation of these roots also produce, though in another way, myriads of variations. Other subtleties, other nuances are discovered and unfold in an entirely different grammatical context.
These questions of grammar, roots and settled variations are fascinating, but it must be said that by confining ourselves to them, we never remain but on the surface of things.
We need to go deeper, to understand the very texture of words, their fundamental origin, whose etymology can never be enough. The time travel that etymology allows, always stops too early, in some ‘original’ sense, but that does not exhaust curiosity. Beyond that, only dense mists reign.
It has been rightly pointed out that Arabic is, in essence, a desert language, a language of nomads. All the roots bear witness to this in a lively, raw, poetic way.
In the same way, one should be able to understand why and how the Vedic language, Sanskrit, which is perhaps the richest, most elaborate language that man has ever conceived, is a language that has been almost entirely constructed from roots and philosophical and religious (Vedic) concepts. One only has to consult a dictionary such as Monier-Williams’ to see that the vast majority of Sanskrit words are metaphorically or metonymically linked to what was once a religious, Vedic image, symbol or intuition.
It is necessary to imagine these people, living six, twelve, twenty or forty thousand years ago, some of them possessing an intelligence and a wisdom as penetrating and powerful as those of Homer, Plato, Dante or Kant, but confronted to a very different ‘cultural’ environment.
These enlightened men of Prehistory were the first dreamers, the first thinkers of language. Their brains, avid, deep and slow, wove dense cocoons, from which were born eternal and brief butterflies, still flying in the light of origin, carefree, drawing arabesques, above the abyss, where the unconscious of the world never ceases to move.
i Cf. Ernest Renan. De l’origine du langage. 1848