A question

 Portrait of Sebastián de Covarrubias Horozco from his chef d’oeuvre, the Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española (1611). From the DVD edition by Studiolum

“Todo lo daré por bien empleado, con que V. M. reciba este mi pequeño servicio con grato ánimo, dándome licencia le ponga nombre de Tesoro, por conformarme con las demás naciones que han hecho diccionarios copiosos de sus lenguas, y de este no solo gozará la española, pero también todas las demás, que con tanta codicia procuran deprender nuestra lengua, pudiéndola ahora saber de raíz, desengañados de que no se debe contar entre las bárbaras, sino igualarla con la latina y la griega, y confesar ser muy parecida a la hebrea en sus frasis y modos de hablar.”

“I will regard all my efforts as well employed if Your Majesty accepted cordially this small service, and gave me permission to give to it the title Tesoro on the example of other nations who have composed large dictionaries on their own languages. And it will be useful not only for the Spanish nation but also for every other nation who usually look down so haughtily on our language. Now as they will know it from its very roots, they will recognize that they cannot count it among the barbarous languages, but they have to consider it as equal to Latin and Greek, and they will also have to admit that it is very similar to Hebrew both in its expressions and its way of speaking”

It is one less than four hundred years now that Sebastián de Covarrubias Horozco wrote these words in the introduction to the first Spanish language encyclopedia, Tesoro de la lengua castellana o española, “Treasury of the Castilian or Spanish language” (1611). The fact that he relates the Spanish language to the Hebrew with such a bold confidence will not be surprising to the reader familiar with the Renaissance history of ideas. For it had been well known since the medieval works of Saint Augustine and Saint Isidor of Seville that every language came from the Hebrew Ursprache of the Paradise which was divided into seventy-two languages only after the enterprise of Babel. The first Renaissance linguists therefore tried with every means at their disposal to unearth this ancient Hebrew heritage from the words of their own languages, thereby also laying the foundations of the science of modern etymology. The Tesoro of Covarrubias fits into this sequence. Its author does not miss any single occasion to extract in some way from the words of the Spanish language their supposed original Hebrew roots. What is unique in Covarrubias, however, is his generous declaration that the Spanish language stands close to Hebrew both in its “expressions and way of speaking”, that is, in its macrostructure and its style. I have therefore set to the Tesoro with great hopes to find in it a larger exposition of this thesis or its illustration with real examples, but all my research was in vain.

And no wonder. Some follow-up revealed that Covarrubias did not arrive to this generous conclusion on the basis of his own researches, but he boldly quotes here – almost literally – his contemporary and compatriot, the Augustinian Fray Luis de León who was very familiar with the Hebrew language and whose several Biblical translations and commentaries widely spread in manuscript in the second half of the 16th century. These also include two different translations of the Song of Songs – one in prose and another in verse – as well as a commentary written on it, entitled Exposición del Cantar de los Cantares. In the introduction of this latter work Fray Luis asserts it:

“…y pretendí que respondiese esta interpretación con el original, no sólo en las sentencias y palabras, sino aun en el concierto y aire de ellas, imitando sus figuras y maneras de hablar cuanto es posible a nuestra lengua, que, a la verdad, responde con la hebrea en muchas cosas”.

“…and I made every effort so that the translation complied with the original, not only in its phrases and words, but also in their harmony and mood, imitating its figures and expressions as much as it was possible in our language which, to tell the truth, is very much in conformity with the Hebrew in many things.”

When I shared my discovery with Pei Di, he immediately called my attention to the fact that the same idea is also found in one of the earliest Hungarian Bible translators, János Sylvester. He wrote the following in the translator’s epilogue to his version of the New Testament (Sárvár, 1541) about “the words that are not taken in their direct meaning”, that is, on metaphors:

“Az ilľen besziduel tele az szent iras, melľhez hozzá kell szokni annak az ki azt oluassa. Köńü kediglen hozzá szokni az mü nipünknek, mert nem ideghen ennek ez ilľen beszidnek neme. Il ilľen besziduel naponkid valo szolásában. Il inekekben, kiuáltkippen az virág inekekben, melľekben czudálhatťa minden nip az Maģar nipnek elmijenek éles voltát az lelisben, melľ nem eģéb hanem Maģar poësis. … Sok ez féle beszidnek nemiuel egģ kippen ilünk az Sido ńelwel, és Göröguel… az melľuel velek egģ kippen ilünk annak kedue vaģon mü nálunk is azonkippen mint ü náluk.”

“The Holy Script is full of such speaking, and whoever reads it must be accustomed to it. It is easy for our nation to be accustomed to it, as this kind of speaking is not unfamiliar to them. They use such speech in their everyday communication as well as in their songs, especially in the love ditties in which every nation can admire the sharp inventions and genius of the Hungarian people which is nothing but Hungarian poetry. … Several expressions are used by us just as in the Jewish or Greek language … and they are just as popular at us as among them.”

Pei Di thinks that the discovery that the translator’s own language is the closest one in its style and metaphors to the Hebrew, may have been general in this period. “If you regularly read 16th-century vernacular literature in more than one language, you will clearly see that their archaic way of speaking still used many metaphors in every vernacular. The contemporaries, however, usually knew only their own vernacular version to the extent to realize this, while the common school Latin was in fact poor in metaphors. This is why, when they discovered the richness of Hebrew figurative language, they may have felt that they found the closest relative of their own mother tongue, certainly in style, and perhaps also regarding its origins.”

Was this idea, the stylistic closeness of the various vernaculars to Hebrew really so widespread in the Renaissance? We want to ask for the help of the polyglot readers of Río Wang in this question. If you have ever encountered any contemporary declaration on the similarity between the Hebrew language and any Renaissance vernacular, please share it with us.

The woodcuts are from the Book of Revelations translated by János Sylvester, Sárvár 1541

15 comentarios:

MMcM dijo...

English won't rate very high on a polyglot scale, but William Tyndale used such an argument to justify vernacular Bible translation.

Studiolum dijo...

Great, MMcM, thank you very much! Gradually it will be clear that Hebrew is much closer to all European languages than Latin is…

Giacomo Ponzetto dijo...

In Italy, scholarly disputes over language have accompanied the creation of Italian at least since Dante (De vulgari eloquentia, 1305) and until Pasolini (Nuove questioni linguistiche, 1964) and Calvino (L'italiano, una lingua tra le altre lingue, 1965). On this subject I can offer no more than vague school memories and the results of internet searches.

These suffice to establish that in the middle of the 16th century Cosimo de' Medici's Accademia Fiorentina invoked the alleged Hebrew roots of Florentine as an argument for its superiority.

On the emergence of this academic and political thesis, a study that is easily accessible online is Sherberg, Michael (2003) The Accademia Fiorentina and the question of the language: The politics of theory in ducal Florence, Renaissance Quartely 56(1): 26-55.

In particular, Pierfrancesco Giambullari published in 1546 his dialogue Il Gello, in which he countered allegations that Florentine was a corruption of Latin by denying that it derived from Latin at all, tracing its lineage instead to Etruscan and thence to Aramaic and Hebrew.

The book claims that Tuscany was settled by Noah himself after the flood, and that his own language was Aramaic. From this prebabelic Ursprache Hebrew derives directly, and Florentine via Etruscan. The similarity between the two is then proof of their common ancestry, predating Latin and Greek.

la lingua Hebrea & la Etrusca, uscirono amendue d'un' pase, in quel modo che udiste all'hora. Ed advertite che gia mai non traligna una cosa tanto: che ella non si riserbi qualche vestigio della prima origine sua. Il che tenendo per fermo; vedremo appresso, non con la lingua Etrusca, che non si sa; ma con l'Hebrea sua sorella; che il nerbo di questa lingua, è Arameo in tutto & per tutto. Perche oltra una infinità di voci, che schiettamente sono aramee; noi ci habbiamo anchora i modi & le proprietà del dire, tanto Hebraiche & tanto Caldee, che quelle genti stesse non l'hanno maggiori.

Giacomo Ponzetto dijo...

The alleged closeness between Florentine and Hebrew is not stylistic, but etymological (pp. 55-57 and 66-72) and grammatical.

Et quali sono disse egli, questi modi & proprietà, che vi paiono di tanta forza?

Et io Principalmente non si declina appresso di loro, nome alcuno ... Et noi medesimamente ne nostri nomi, gli seguitiamo in tutto & per tutto: senza altra variatione di voce, che del numero solamente.

Non hanno essi il comparativo ... Il che osserviamo noi ancora, che non havendo se non 4 comparativi, aggiugnendo a gli altri nomi lo adverbio, piu, diciamo il piu bello di tutti ...

Essi non hanno superlativo; ma esprimonlo con replicare due volte il positivo ... Et noi come derivati di Aram, diciamo, Va ratto ratto, cioè rattissimo ...

Uniscono essi il numero singulare del verbo, co'l plurale della cosa ... Et noi diciamo, egli è venti hore ...

Gli Aramei usavano il pronome affisso al verbo, & alle propositioni; & a' nomi molte volte ... Et noi in questa maniera medesima diciamo fratelmo ... fratel mio ... Et co'l verbo, non solamente il pronome affisso, come: dissemi ... ma & il relativo con esso, come dissemelo ... cioè disse la cosa à me ... Il che non so io che si usi fuori di lingua Aramea, ò che habbia origine da la Aramea.

Usano essi gli articoli ... Il che facciamo noi similmente con gli articoli nostri, il, lo & la. Et habbiamogli solamente di duoi generi: Perché gli Aramei anchora, non hanno altro che'l maschio, & la femmina.

Non ha quella lingua gerundi, o supini: ma in luogo di questi, si vale solamente de lo infinito, co'l preporgli una delle quattro lettere à cio deputate; secondo che si varia il significato ... Et noi medesimamente senza gerundi, & senza supini, diciamo, in vedere, con vedere, ad vedere, da vedere.

... le due negazioni continuate, non affermano appresso à gli Hebrei; ma niegano maggiormente ... Il che in tutto & per tutto si osserva appresso di noi, che diciamo E' non ne fia nulla ...

Usano anchora la lettera D. per segno del genitivo ... Il che osservano i nostri anchora, dicendo, colore di rosa ...

Vengono anchora gli Hebrei da la terza persona, à la prima: Et noi nel modo medesimo non cominciamo à contare de noi stessi; ma diciamo Piero, & tu, & io, andremo à vedere ...

Habbiamoci oltre à questo, la pronuncia dello sc, attaccati insieme, tanto propria, e tanto Aramea; che essi anchora nel pronuntiare il suono dello scin, non lo suonano più espresso ne meglio che facciamo adesso noi ...

Ma poi che siamo entrati nella pronuntia, io non voglio lasciarvi in dietro, l'altre quattro proprietà Aramee, che si sentono in certe lettere, variate appresso di loro, non solamente di suono, ma di nome & di forma anchora. Et in tra noi di forza & di forma solo. Imperò che si come gli Hebrei & Caldei hanno, due E. duoi O, due S. Et duoi Z. molto differenti l'uno da l'altro: Cosi e gli habbiamo noi altri ...

Tutte queste proprietà del parlare; & molte altre che non hò à mente, fanno fede, questa nostra lingua, havere dependentia et origine, da quella che le hà in uso: cioè non da la latina, non da la greca; ma da la Aramea, che era la stessa Toscana antica.


It is ironic that the last sentence feels closer to Latin than to contemporary Italian, which no longer allows the accusative-infinitive construction, nor would normally use either "far fede" or "avere dipendenza" with these Latin meanings.

Language dijo...

I've posted your question at LH here, so you might check there occasionally for follow-up.

Studiolum dijo...

Thank you, Language! Yes, in the meantime we have also discovered it, and we are following with excitement the good ideas popping up both there and, through your mediation, here in the comments. It seems more and more that the idea of the – at least stylistic – relationship between Hebrew and the vernacular (always of the specific vernacular of the given author) was rather widespread in the period.

Tante grazie, Giacomo, per la preziosa informazione e per le citazioni dal Gello che provano che l’idea dell’affinità fra il volgare e l’ebreo (o almeno l’arameo) era diffusa anche in Toscana. Infatti, adesso che me ne rammenti, già mi ricordo delle Antiquitates di Annio da Viterbo e della sua fantastica storia dell’anziana Toscana arameo-etrusca.

Da questo punto di vista è molto curioso che il linguista Mario Alinei dall’Università di Utrecht nel suo Etrusco: una forma arcaica di ungherese (2003) ha recentemente ipotetizzato un’affinità abbastanza fantastica fra le due lingue, basandola appunto sulle loro origini asiatiche. Come se Annio da Viterbo e János Sylvester finalmente si fossero messi d’accordo sulle comuni radici ebraiche dei loro rispettivi volgari…

Giacomo Ponzetto dijo...

Annio è esplicitamente tra le fonti del Gellio, ove è citato a più riprese. In particolare, è dichiaratamente anniana la paretimologia ebraica (od aramea) di "Galli":

Perche que Galli, non sono i Francesi: ma sono quegli stessi padri che si salvarono da'l diluvio. Dicendo l'Annio che i Galli sono cosi chiamati con antichissima voce Etrusca, Aramea, et Hebrea.

Ma voi Giambullari che ne dite?

Dico io, gli risposi io, che GAL, come vedere si può in Santi Pagnino, significa l'onda marina, per lo aggiramento del moto suo: & GALIM nel plurale, l'onde ...

Puossi dunque inferire disse il Gello, che i Galli antichi fossero gli inondati, cioè Noè co figliuoli, che si salvarono à galla su per l'onde, nella Arca del diluvio: Et che gli Umbri fossero i figliuoli di costoro


Questa paretimologia risultò gradita, a quanto mi è dato comprendere, anche ad un amico e corrispondente di Gelli e Giambullari, l'ebraista e cabalista francese Guillaume Postel.

Questi, a quanto pare, la sfruttò per asserire la primogenitura noaica del francese. In quali esatti termini non saprei però dire, dacché non è raggiungibile online il suo De Originibus seu de Hebraicae linguae et gentis antiquitate, deque varium linguarum affinitate (1538).

Le teorie di Postel dovevano inoltre esibire considerevole flessibilità se gli consentirono al contempo di compiacere Cosimo I con un De Etruriae regionis, quae prima in orbe Europaeo habitata est, originibus, institutis, religionis, et moribus (1551), non meno anniano né più leggibile su internet.

Tim dijo...

I can't help but read some of the appeals to Hebrew, Latin, and Greek (and always those three) as conspicuously excluding/precluding Arabic.

Early Modern writers were certainly adept at this kind of artful parsing of tradition: I think of English Protestant tracts that appropriate Venetian history and Florentine art, making scrupulous arguments to distinguish the "good" Republican Italy from the "bad" Catholic Rome.

MMcM dijo...

It seems that it cannot be as simple as a proxy for the question of vernacular translations or for the Reformation. For instance, though Martin Luther argued for idiomatic German and that Hebrew was the purest language, he did not, as far as I know, ever propose that German was more Hebrew-like, in either style or form.

A Két Sheng Szerelmese dijo...

The ideas of Annio da Viterbo had a profound effect in Spain, too. His book was widely distributed, and many authors, among them most notably Florián de Ocampo and Estebán de Garibay accepted and developed further on his idea that the first inhabitants of Spain were Arameans. These Aramaizing theories made their influences in Spain up to the end of the 16th century.

A Két Sheng Szerelmese dijo...

Tim: I do not think that it is about religion. Most Christian authors of the Renaissance, to put it mildly, were not very kindly disposed toward Jews, nevertheless they kept the Hebrew language in a very high esteem. In those days, Arabic simply did not hold the same status of antiquity and dignity as the three "holy" languages, Hebrew, Greek and Latin which were the languages of the Bible and had a long ancient litterary tradition. In the Renaissance when linguistics was as much - or more - politics as a branch of scolarship per se, one of its aims was to prove the noblesse and antiquity of the nation and the crown through showing the same about its vernacular. Well, Arabic just could not do the job.

A Két Sheng Szerelmese dijo...

MMcM: Umberto Eco says that for Luther German was the language closest to God. Of course it does not say anything about its proximity to Hebrew, and neither is Eco always very reliable. But I thought it was interesting to mention.

Diane dijo...

But of course in the case of Spanish, there is good reason to find an affinity with Hebrew, since Hebrew and the Phoenician language were close cousins, and the Phoenician language remained a living tongue in Spain as late as Stabo's time, as he himself informs us, saying that the whole of Andalusia (the Roman province called Turdetania) was still remembered as having once been Phoenician territory.

Also, the poet and grammarian Quintillian, writing in the first Christian century, tells us that the Romans’ word mappa (i.e. for hempen cloth and for a form of small book) was gained from the Phoenician. Quintillian was a Spaniard by birth though his education was in Rome where he was formally trained as an orator, expert in etymologies.

A Két Sheng Szerelmese dijo...

Diane, thank you for your interesting thoughts. I am not sure whether I shall take your words for face value or interpret them as argumentations that our Hebraizing etymologists in 16th and 17th century Spain possibly could have had.

If the former, then I would say that we have no hard facts in the form of concrete etymologies to proof any continuity between Phoenician and Spanish, the latter only beginning to develop from Latin several centuries after the former ceased to be spoken at all in Iberia. As far as I know, no contemporary scholarly works about the history of the Spanish language mention the possibility of such connection.

If the latter, then I would politely disagree, too. Covarrubias and his contemporaries had no knowledge at all of the Phoenician language, thus they could not relate it to Hebrew, for not to speak about the fact that the discipline of comparative linguistics that today can tell us that Hebrew and Phoenician are very closely related, was not yet born. So I would rule out the Phoenician connection, both as historic fact and as a possible theory by Spanish etimologists of the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

Anthony dijo...

MMcM: [Luther] did not, as far as I know, ever propose that German was more Hebrew-like, in either style or form. - no, that was left for John McWhorter.

I don't know any Hebrew or Arabic to attempt to quantify this, but Spanish is filled with Arabic loanwords, and it doesn't strike me as too much a stretch that some of those would have cognates in Hebrew, which would give some slight plausibility to the claim that Spanish was closer to Hebrew than other European languages.