Magazine article Verbatim

Searching for the First Words

Magazine article Verbatim

Searching for the First Words

Article excerpt

Have you ever wondered, as you studied an artist's rendering of our remote ancestors, what they actually said to each other as they strode across the veldt? If so, you are not alone. Thinking people have speculated about the nature and form of early language since classical times. In the centuries after the Renaissance, searching for the original language was practically a cottage industry. Until the mid-nineteenth century, all serious linguistic scholars had a theory about the first language.

One important issue was the question of which language was current in the Garden of Eden. Most people voted for Hebrew, the language of the Old Testament. The story of the Tower of Babel seemed to suggest that everyone on earth spoke Hebrew until Jehovah "confounded their speech." Another popular candidate was Aramaic, also a Biblical language.

For those not persuaded by the Babel argument, there remained plenty of other choices. Syriac, Chaldean, Greek, and Latin, 'all known to be ancient, were obvious possibilities. More recent languages were proposed too. Loyal nationalists tended to support their own country's speech; German, Italian, and Gaelic were heavy favorites in the Adamitic stakes. An Antwerp physician named Jan van Gorp (also known as Johannes Goropius Becanus), wrote a 1569 treatise arguing that Flemish contained as many primitive features as Hebrew, if not more. He supported his claim with dozens of freewheeling etymologies deriving various European languages from Flemish. In spite of the relaxed etymological standards of the time, other scholars greeted van Gorp's derivations with incredulity. Constructing fantastic word histories became known as goropizing.

The scramble to claim the original language, and by implication the Garden of Eden itself, inspired a Swedish former military officer named Andreas Kempe to publish a satirical pamphlet in 1688 called The Languages of Paradise. In it he describes a fictional beer-drinking party where the participants begin discussing the problem of which language was spoken in Paradise. (An unusually serious topic for a beer party, but they didn't have the option of talking about televised sports.) Predictably, several people mention Hebrew, but the author's alter ego, Simon Simplex, reminds them of the story of Magog, Noah's grandson. According to the Bible, Magog migrated to "the isles of the Gentiles," which many Swedes of the time took to be Sweden. Since this event occurred before the confusion of tongues at Babel, the language of Magog's descendants--that is, Swedish--must be the original Edenic tongue.

Kempe was following the standard scholarly Swedish line with this proposal, but then he added an unusual twist. He concluded that although God spoke Swedish, Adam responded in Danish. He doesn't say what Eve spoke, but the serpent tempted her in French. According to Kempe, it's not surprising that Eve fell. French, the traditional language of seduction, "works with the whole body in such a way that even the wisest person can be deceived."

People continued to argue furiously about the language of Eden for another hundred years. As late as 1799, J.G. Hasse located the Garden of Eden in Eastern Prussia, based on the discovery of amber deposits there. The philosopher Fichte claimed that German was the best candidate for Ursprache because it was a "pure" language of ancient roots, unlike the Romance languages, which relied heavily on Latin for their vocabulary. Two Irish authors, Rowland Jones and James Parsons, insisted that Gaelic was the closest language to the original. Noah Webster agreed. He believed that Irish was one of the oldest tongues, if not absolutely the first. In Dissertations on the English Language, he connects it with such ancient languages as Phoenician, Hebrew, Punic, and Gothic.

Not everyone agreed that the original language was still extant. Some people believed that it had long ago disintegrated, or at least become unrecognizable. …

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