Monday, April 06, 2009

The line between cranks and scholars

What is it with some linguists and claiming a mysterious relationship between English and Hebrew? First there's Isaac Mozeson, the literature professor (I hesitate to use the term "linguist") who maintains that all English words can be traced to Hebrew. Then there's Ernest Klein, a rabbi/linguist who saw Semitic origins where other scholars didn't. I never expected John McWhorter of all people to enter the fray. But he does, in a recent book that features an eccentric theory about early Semitic influence on the language that would become English.

Superficial relationships
Even in my early childhood, I noticed resemblances between certain Hebrew words and their English counterparts: camel is gamal, wine is yayin, and earth is eretz. There's a perfectly reasonable explanation for all this. Animal names often come from languages spoken in the region where the animal is found. Hence, moose comes from a Native American tongue, and camel comes from a Middle Eastern Semitic tongue that may or may not have been Hebrew, but was certainly related. Similarly, the ancients would have referred to wine using the term from the culture that first disseminated the drink, just as we today adopted the Japanese word sushi instead of inventing our own term using pure-English roots (e.g. "seafood roll"). As for eretz and "earth," that's probably just a coincidence.

That last statement, in my experience, often provokes the response, "I don't believe in coincidence." But it has nothing to do with coincidence in a cosmic sense. The Hawaiian word kahuna meaning "priest" sounds remarkably similar to the Hebrew word for priest, but unless you can devise a story about an ancient encounter between Semitic tribes and Polynesians, it is likely that the two languages just happened to hit upon the same combination of sound and meaning in this one instant. These things happen from time to time.

Isaac Mozeson
In his 1988 book The Word, Mozeson maintains not only that the English language (as well as all other languages) comes directly from Hebrew, "the language of Eden," but that this fact can be discerned by examining the roots of English words. According to Mozeson, "Hebrew vocabulary has as much affinity with English as it has with Arabic. More English words can be clearly linked to Biblical Hebrew than to Latin, Greek, or French."

As for the Indo-European theory of modern linguistics, Mozeson argues that it is nothing more than a racist plot by white Gentiles to segregate their languages from other cultures and undermine the eternal truth of the Torah. As Mozeson puts it, "The third son of Noah, Ham, is behind the generic term for African languages, and white gentiles in the linguistic community have no trouble with the evidence of a related Hamito-Semitic language family. Let the Blacks and Jews share the ghetto, whisper the professors, as long as Indo-European remains lily white." It never seems to occur to him what the "Indo" part of the theory signifies.

The book is filled with his unorthodox etymologies. "Sparrow," he claims, comes from the Hebrew tzipor ("bird"). The English word "lad" derives from the Hebrew yeled ("boy"). "Direction" comes from derekh ("path, way"). He even traces "samurai" to the Hebrew shomer ("guardian")--via Japanese, of course.

This is all quite clever. But I can't help thinking of the father in the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding who insists that if you give him any English word, he can explain how it is derived from Greek. He shows how it's done with some easy examples, like arachnophobia. Then one of the kids says "kimono!" The father is stopped short for a moment, then he explains that it comes from the Greek word for winter, himona, and in winter you stay warm by wearing a robe--kimono!

If Mozeson considered other theories, he'd find his own wanting. For example, mainstream linguists trace the word direction to the Latin directus, which is the past participle of the verb dirigere, "to set straight." That word comes from a combination of dis- ("apart") and regere ("to guide"). Not exactly a plausible candidate for connecting with the Hebrew derekh. But Mozeson disregards the mass of historical and literary evidence, as well as the theories of systematic sound change between languages, used by mainstream linguists to establish cognates. Ironically, Mozeson's picture of language evolution makes the process seem far more random and haphazard than in mainstream linguistics.

Of course, his method could be used to "prove" that any language came from any other language. John McWhorter demonstrated this in his 2003 book Power of Babel. Not specifically in reference to Mozeson or any other crank linguist, McWhorter "proves" that Japanese comes from English, based on the following words:

sagaru: hang down (i.e. "sag")
namae: name
mono: thing, single entity
nai: not
mo: more
miru: see (hence, "mirror")
taberu: eat (hence, "table," where one eats)
atsui (ott-SOO-ee): hot
hito: man (i.e. "he")
yo: emphatic particle (i.e. "Yo!")
kuu: feed your face (i.e. "chew")
inki: dark-spirited or glum (hence, "inky")

I actually think Japanese shows a close relationship to Hebrew. In Hebrew, karati means "I read." And what people are more in need of learning self-defense than the guys with their noses in books?

Ernest Klein
Klein was a linguist and Orthodox rabbi best known for two works: an etymological dictionary of English, and one of Hebrew. He had a tendency to suggest Semitic origins for English words more often than other scholars did. Unlike Mozeson, however, he worked entirely within the framework of mainstream linguistics, and in fact his dictionaries are widely respected works of scholarship. The Online Etymology Dictionary, which has had considerable influence across the Internet, relies a great deal on Klein's research. One time I was reading a word-origin blog that traced the word traffic to the Arabic tafriq meaning "distribution." I immediately suspected--and quickly confirmed--that the blogger had gotten his information from the Online Etymology Dictionary and ultimately from Klein.

John McWhorter
In his earlier books on linguistics, McWhorter mainly attempted to explain the views of professional linguists before the general public. He does some of that in his latest book Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue, talking about the flaws in conventional conceptions of "correct" and "incorrect" grammar, as well as debunking the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis (that a language's grammatical properties affect its speakers' thought processes). But he also proposes some theories he admits few linguists accept.

For the purposes of this blog entry, I will mention just one of the theories: He thinks that the Phoenicians, who spoke a language very similar to Hebrew, made their way to the area that is now Germany and Denmark and had such a profound effect on the languages spoken there that the entire Germanic subfamily (which includes modern German, Dutch, English, and the Scandinavian languages) was the result of Semitic-speaking adults struggling to learn an Indo-European tongue.

Linguists have long believed that Proto-Germanic underwent strong non-IE influence. For one thing, one-third of Proto-Germanic vocabulary cannot be traced to IE roots. McWhorter discusses several lines of evidence, including Proto-Germanic's substitution of fricatives for stop consonants (compare English's father with Latin's pater), its tendency to put verbs into the past tense by simply changing the vowel (e.g. drink/drank), and its extreme simplification of the IE case system.

McWhorter speculates on a possible connection between certain Germanic and Semitic roots, such as the English word fright compared with the Semitic root p-r-kh meaning "to fear." Particularly interesting is his attempt to connect the names of two Germanic deities, Phol and Balder, with the Phoenician god Baal. Also, an archeologist allegedly found the remains of a Phoenician cooking pot in the shallows of the North Sea.

McWhorter is quick to admit that none of this comes close to proving his case; he simply argues that his hypothesis is an intriguing possibility worthy of further investigation.

Final thought: the line between cranks and scholars
Etymology is far from an exact science. Look in any dictionary, and you will find scores of words with unknown origins. In those situations, even the professionals end up resorting to guesswork, some of it as crude and far-fetched as anything Isaac Mozeson could have dreamed up. The difference, I suppose, is that legitimate researchers try to gather up as many facts as they can, and acknowledge when the limits have been reached. Usually.