Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Ten language in ten months; on the Compleat Linguist.

One of the most original ideas anyone ever had for a magazine, in my opinion, was John Henley's The Compleat Linguist. The plan was for 10 numbers, one a month, each one outlining the grammar of a particular language, with a learned introduction - usually in under 100 pages. He began in August 1719 with Spanish, and ripped through Italian, French, Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Chaldee (Aramaic), Arabic, Syriac and of course English, in that order. Although he did not achieve his goal (one a month) he did manage to print them all. I don't think anyone's going to claim that these are perfect works, but they are of surprisingly high quality. I cannot imagine knowing 10 languages, let along having the guts or arrogance to try to pull something like this off. The introductions are filled with many irrelevancies and (of course) pseudo-beliefs about the particular languages, but they also contain much that is perfectly sound and many, many gems - not to mention highly useful lists of the best available reference works in the 18th century, plus interesting advice about how best to learn these languages. Let us have a look (at the Hebrew one, naturally):

As you can see, the fuller subtitle was "An universal Grammar of all the Considerable Tongues in Being." The content is "Collect from the most Appov'd Hands." 

In the introduction to the first volume (Spanish), Henley makes the case that knowing languages is "one of the most Useful and Ornamental Parts of Knowledge, to all in general ; and to some, a Necessary Talent." He says that "He he no Right to the Name of a Scholar, that has not examin'd the principles of every Considerable Language." Not only that, nor is one a "Gentleman, who is not a Competent Master of each Tongue that is requisite to carry him thro' any Civil Employ in the Service of the Publick." 

Thus, he holds that a scholar must have studied all important languages, and a gentleman must also master languages which are relevant to his work. In England in 1719, this would of course be English, but doubtlessly also at least Latin and another European language.

He continues saying that all languages "give a mutual light to one another" since "the Alliance betwixt most of them . . . is so very obvious."

He realizes that studying grammar is usually tedious, so he intends to write clearly and concisely, without clogging it with countless examples and words, which properly belong in lexicons and dictionaries.

Then he discusses Spanish, which he says is founded upon a Latin base, with "a large mixture of the Morisco, or Arabick." He notes that there are gutturals in Spanish, which are considered to be a mark of antiquity in language, gutturals being found in the Eastern languages and in Irish and Welsh. He describes the sound of Spanish as "grave and leisurely," two adjectives that are not often compounded. He goes on to explain that the "best and most useful dialect" is Castilian, etc.

Thus for Spanish. Volume 2, published right on time in September 1719, treats Italian. He says that the close relationship between Spanish and Italian make them a natural flow from one to the other. He says that Italian is "one of the most Polite Tongues in the World" and only Greek gives any competition - it "is certainly the most Tuneful." The language is soft, it glides, and it is a "peculiarly happy" language for music. He explains this factor due to "the Natural Genius [of the language], the Climate [of Italy], and without doubt, to something particular in the Organs of the People that speak it." He explains that these are the cause of variety in all languages. He then adds some words about opera, which he is not a fan of because he thinks it is unnatural and frivolous. Opera.

Still, he's a fan of Italian and thinks it "deservedly in great Esteem." He then explains that each language has a certain place where it is spoken best (the standard), and for Italian that is supposed to be Rome and Siena. He helpfully lists the other cities where languages are in their best form, both in speech and writing: Spanish in Toledo, French in Blois, English in London, and German (actually, he says High Dutch) in Leipzig. He goes on and on about how beautiful Italian is (opera notwithstanding), and gives an interesting account of its evolution from Latin, and its numerous dialects.

In October, he printed French. Each introduction is valuable, because he makes remarks that are not mere repeats of earlier ones. So here he writes that Latin is not really the source of any of the Romance languages, but actually it is but "the largest ingredient." He says this is contrary to the common opinion. He brings proof by noting the great many words in these languages that have no affinity with Latin or other languages, and therefore must be remnants of the original tongues spoken in those countries. "The Rise of the French therefore is due to the old Celtic, blended with the Latin, Gothic, German &c." He discusses the relationships of the Celts in Britain with the mainland ones in Britanny, and opines that the true source of Celtic is from mainland Europe, since "all Islands must at first be Peopled from the continent."

Turning from history to the language, he states that French is very well suited for "Address, Amour, Dispatch and Politeness." He approves of the standardization of French due to the Dictionary of the Academy. After some more praises, he "wish[es] rather than hop[es] for" such standardization of English. He gives in a little dig at the government's priorities: "Our Court has at present other Views, and different Methods of laying out their Money, than in polishing our Tongue" through the establishment of an Academy of Language. He says that scholars in France are so successful because of their encouragement, which is wanting in England. 

Next is Greek, the first issue more than 100 pages long. The grand scope of his work must be catching up with him, for this one now covers two months, November and December 1719.

Ah, Greek. "The Common Parent of the Western Languages, and the most accomplish'd Tongue in the World." It has everything. Weight. Purity. Force. Roundness. Manly Grace. Delicacy. 

He gives lip service to another scholar who claimed to prove that Hebrew is "the main Fountain" of Greek, and says he will talk about that elsewhere. 

He brushes off modern Greek, corrupted by Turkish and other mixtures. It is pretty dismissible.

He gives the history of the language and letters, from classical sources. Although he denies the Greek philosophers the right to their own knowledge (they were "after the Time of the Jewish Prophets") he does not go the obvious route, and says that they, "as the Jews themselves did," owe their knowledge to the Egyptians.

He adds that some Greek words found their way into Jewish writings, such as Sanhedrin. In addition, many Greek names were adopted by Jews. Etc.

Again, bimonthly, Number 5 is Latin (Jan. - Feb. 1720). He gives its history, a theory about its origin, and that the praises of it would be "endless" to list. He quotes some samples of great writers. I will quote one. Isaac Causubon, he says, listed four good qualities for a language:

1. Convenience to express the Sense of the Mind.
2. Antiquity.
3. Dignity of those that use it.
4. Extent of use.

Causubon applied the first to Greek, second and third to Hebrew, and the fourth to Latin. 

Next is Hebrew, which I uploaded here if you would like to download it. This one covers three months, 
March - May of 1720.

He says that the necessity of importance of good skill in Hebrew is obvious to a scholar in general, and particularly to a clergyman (a Divine). Since Hebrew is the source of all language, he seems to accept, a scholar can never be a true judge of anything unless he can trace the origin of things, and in the case of language, this means to Hebrew. And clergymen are basically "Contemtible and Lifeless" if they lack "a vivid Knowledge of Scripure," so of course they need to know Hebrew.

In the next paragraph he expresses more skepticism, and says that the first language is doubtful. The pagan writers didn't mention it, and "the most ancient writer in the world" - Moses - only speaks of the dispersion of tongues. He does not think that it is then to be implied that until the Tower of Babel there were no changes in the language spoken. He sensibly writes that 1656 years lapsed between Adam and Noah, and during that time men spread to various climates, cities and countries, and there must have been some variety in language, as these things are wont to produce, albeit not so great as the language explosion at Babel. He dismisses the "Dreams of some" that Hebrew was kept as a pure language by "the Race of Seth, and Shem" and says it is as likely as one 'scholarly' opinion that God spoke to Adam in German.

Noting that Moses said that there was one tongue spoken (Gen. xiv. 1.) he says that Rashi (Rab. Sal. Yarhhi) and Ibn Ezra say it was Hebrew, but give no reason other than that proper names like Adam and Peleg have meaning in Hebrew. However, Henley says that Moses could have taken them from another language and just translated it to Hebrew. For all we know, Adam's name was Earth. (I said that, not he.)

He surveys foreign words in the Torah; Syriac (yegar sahadutha) and Egyptian (tzophenath paneach). As for Arabic, Job is bursting with it. He cites one author who called Job "the Divine of the Arabs," and notes that some scholarly opinions make the book older than the Pentateuch, and others that is was written by Moses himself.

He explains that some say the term Hebrew comes from Eber, but rejects it because most scholars say that Abraham was called a Hebrew from "eber hanahar," originating from across the Euphrates. In fact, Abraham probably spoke Chaldee, and learned Hebrew from the Canaanites, who were the descendents of Cham. He notes that the proper names in Canaan is Hebrew, referring readers to Joshua 15, where we learn that the original name of Devir was Kiryat Sepher.

He then continues explaining that Hebrew "has its Graces and Elegancies" and "The Jews cannot be converted without [knowledge of] it." Also, the Bible is a very important book.

He praises the rabbinic knowledge and understanding of Hebrew, although many of their mistakes comes from ignorance of Arabic (later he explains that the best of the rabbis were from Spain, and they knew and wrote in Arabic). 

He gives advice for how to study Hebrew: master the grammar of Bythner, the Thesaurus of Buxtorf, and then the Bible in the original. From there the reader can move on to a Polyglot Bible. The best Hebrew Bible is Athias. Menasseh ben Israel's was good, but not as good as Plantin's. 

He mentions Simon Ockley, who supplied him with much of the content of the preface, who told him that the best edition of the Pentateuch "is that of Roza." Sadly, I do not know which one this is. Ockley told him that a rabbi read it and told him that it is "faultless." He recommends Walton's Polyglot, and the Mikraot Gedolot printed in 1568, for it contains Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Saadya Gaon, Ralbag, Radak and the Baal Haturim.

He lays out a program for study:

"Take this way; 1. Read the Pentateuch and consult Sixt. Amama's Grammer; Martinio-Buxt. for the particular Anomalies: Then Joshua, Judges, Samuel, Kings . . . then the Chronicles, Ruth, Nehemiah, Esther, Ecclesiastes; and then the Prophets, and lastly Proverbs, and Job. 2. Labour to read without the Points."

He notes that the Tetragrammaton is pronounced by the Jews Adonai, and that the reader should do as well - not for any superstition, but because it will help in converting Jews.

To learn how to write without nekkudot, he recommends writing a chapter of the Bible without them, letting it rest for a week, and then point it yourself, then compare with the original. Repeat.

To understand the te'amim, he suggests various books, including the appendix of R. David Calonymus to R. Abraham de Balmes' Mikne Avram, as well as the writings of R. Elijah Levita.

He recommends various lexicons, and notes that Buxtorf got a lot from the Radak's Shorashim, just as he got a lot of his thesaurus from the Mikhlol.

He gives a long digression on the question of the antiquity of the vowel points, and the various positions. He seems to be saying that in his view if the Karaites accept them (he doesn't know) then the matter is settled. He claims that R. Elijah Levita  (and Ibn Ezra!) is considered a heretic by the Jews for arguing that the points are late.

He gives a useful example in explaining the nekkudot, using English. If you had Bll, the reader would have to decide from context alone if Ball, Bell, Bill or Bull is meant. 

He gives a sketch of Hebrew literature, beginning with the Mishnah and Talmud. Then he comes to the poskim - "the Ritual Rabbins" (best translation ever?) - and says that Maimonides is the best of them. 

He returns to the origin of languages and alphabets. He quotes on scholar who said that the Tongue of old Paradise is now unknown, saying that he can show 1000 words in Old German that have no relationship with Hebrew whatsoever. But Henley said that he only have 10 examples, and all but 2 are from Hebrew!

In praise of Hebrew, he says that it is good for "Use, Etymology, Names of People, Placed and Deities."

He gives a lengthy digression on the proper pronunciation of the Tetragrammaton, giving the arguments for reading Jehova or Adonay. 

He discusses Hebrew grammarians, and notes that Hebrew words are transliterated in all manner of ways, usually reflecting different manners of writing in the native tongue of the authors, as well as disagreements about pronunciation. He gives the following examples:

Kimchi, Kimhhi, Qimhi; Pathah, Patha, Patach, Pathach; Hirik, Hirik, Chirek, etc.

He includes a nice table showing the handwriting of Ashkenazim and Sephardim at the present time:

He notes that  in rabbinic books sometimes the aleph and lamed are collapsed into one letter.

The next part, which hopefully will follow soon, will deal with the grammar itself and the following 4 books, Chaldee, Arabic, Syriac and English, all of which are quite interesting. But in case I don't get to it right away, here is an interesting page from his Chaldee (Aramaic) issue:

As you can see, in discussing roshe tevot, he mentions the (interesting, odd) theory that the Hebrew word "selah," so commonly found in Psalms is an acronym for "סב למעלה השר," which was a fancy of way of saying "And once more, from the beginning!" (The scholar he cites for this theory, Marcus Meibomius, compared it to the Italian "da capo." C.F. the siddur of R. Yaakov Zvi Mecklenburg, where he denies that this could be its meaning, on the grounds that the Men of the Great Assembly (Anshe Knesset ha-Gedola) composed prayers which used it and it doesn't work in those contexts, and they assuredly knew Hebrew very, very well.) I doubt he read this in Meibomius' original. Although there is an endless amount of secondary literature he might have read it in, my guess is that he saw it in Ben Zeev's Otzar ha-Shorashim).

Secondly, he cautions that to properly understand rabbinic writings you need Buxtorf's Lexicon and Concordance. The problem is that the rabbis don't cite chapter in verse, they just "weave the Quotation into their own Style, without Distinction." The interesting example he provides is from the very first comment of Rashi on the Torah.


  1. I wouldn't mind copies of #4 and #5, so as to gain some passing familiarity with the classical languages.

    You can't imagine knowing 10 languages? I suppose, but I've known multilingual people.

    Take my sister's late father-in-law, the publicist and diplomat Elchanan Gafni. He grew up in Czechoslovakia in the 20s and 30s, came to Israel despite the White Paper in 1938, and was Israel's ambassador to Cameroon in the 1960s. At 70 he taught himself Ugaritic.

    I think his range included English, Hebrew, French, Czech, Russian, Yiddish, German, Aramaic, Ugaritic. Probably a bit of Arabic too. He said he was most comfortable reading in French; I started reading Scholem's Major Trends from his copy of a French translation while visiting many years ago, but switched to (the original) English pretty quickly.

    I'm not much of a language-head, but studied English, French, Hebrew, Talmudic pidgin Aramaic (badly), and know a few words & phrases of Spanish, Italian, Latin, Yiddish, etc. e.g., when a pretty woman got off the elevator, and the other guy said "que bella donna che", it wasn't hard to figure out.

  2. How long did it take you tom prepare this post?

  3. Great post! Two letters together such as Aleph and Lamed are called a "Ligature". I would be interested in a copy of the Aramaic (Chaldee) volume.

  4. For evidence of a Semitic-based universal vocabulary, see the charts for canine (KeLeBH) and cow (BaQaR) words at

    You will be amazed at how many "wolf" words are KeLeBH (canine) backwards, and how beasts like the CaRaBou (reindeer) and CaRaBao (Phillipine water buffalo) are a metathesis of BaQaR (cattle).

    A prehistoric psycholinguistic Big Bang of language diversity is also in Chinese and Mayan lore.

  5. Anonymous, approximately 1 hour and 15 minutes.

  6. That's remarkably fast for a 5-page typed-double-space paper. In college it took me about 20-30 min./page for the one-draft wonders.



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