Tuesday, February 8, 2011

our foundational tongues?

A commentator at The Daily Dish writes: I recently learned that in our foundational tongues of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew the words for breath and spirit are one and the same: spiritus, pneuma, and ruach [emphasis added].

I'm not sure what the author had in mind for "our foundational tongues." Assuming the author is referring to English, then Latin, okay sure, Romance languages have had an important influence on English. Greek, less so. But Hebrew??? What's most striking is the notable lack of Germanic languages as "foundational." This author needs a Ling 101 class.

And as for the author's claim about words for breath and spirit being the same, there is a related poetic pairing common to good ol' fashioned English. The word breath is often used as a metonymy for life or spirit. Here are a few choice examples:

The Bard
Henry V -- King Henry's Once more unto the breach, dear friends speech (III, 1):

Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!

In my reading of this line, King Henry pairs holding of the breath with spiritual courage to draw a parallel between the two.

Hamlet -- Hamlet's Mother, Queen Gertrude, whilst arguing with her tortured son (III, 4):

Be thou assured, if words be made of breath,
And breath of life, I have no life to breathe
What thou hast said to me .

Prior to this line, Hamlet prods his mother to stop sleeping with his uncle/king and to "break your own neck down." In my reading of her lines, Gertrude connects the dots between words, breath, and spirit because of her son's harsh words. She is saying it is not in my spirit to do what you are asking of me.

And here is a really nice 2009 discussion of poetry and breath by Melissa Zeiger: Grace Paley's Poetics of Breath. Money quote:

The Romantic poets reemphasized breath as a force in poetry, liking to imagine that poetic breath mediated between the human and the transcendent, as, famously, in Coleridge's “The Eolian Harp,” where the wind joins breath to participate in “one Life within us and abroad,/ Which meets all motion and becomes its soul

And this trope is not limited to Western literature either. The traditional Chinese concept of Qi is deeply rooted in an analogy of breath = life. From the Wikipedia page:

Qi is frequently translated as "energy flow". Qi is often compared to Western notions of energeia or élan vital (vitalism), as well as the yogic notion of prana, meaning vital life or energy, and pranayama, meaning control of breath or energy. The literal translation of "qi" is air, breath, or gas. Compare this to the original meaning of the Latin word "spiritus", meaning breathing; or the Koine Greek "πνεῦμα", meaning air, breath, or spirit; and the Sanskrit term "prana", meaning breath.

What this suggests to me is that there is something deeply natural to our cognitive perceptions about this analogy between breath and life. It is natural for humans to perceive breathing and thinking to be related somehow. Without breath, you cannot think. Fair enough. But this might be a deeply human logic insofar as ants or dolphins may not conceive of this relationship in the same way. I blogged about this last year in Dolphin-Bikes and The Iconicity Effect. I'm still waiting for a dolphin bike.


bulbul said...

This sounds very much like the Venice episode from Vita Cyrilli (ch. 16): Constantine and Methodius were brought before a synod and accused of spreading heresy by inventing a script for the Slavic language of Moravia and translating the Scriptures. Their critics argued that "there are only three tongues fit to praise the Lord: Hebrew, Greek and Latin".

Lane said...

Seems fairly obvious that the writer is playing up Christian fellow-feeling with Andrew Sullivan, the Catholic blogger: Hebrew, Greek and Latin are foundational to Western thought via their crucial role in transmitting Christian scripture and elaborating Christian thought, the concepts of which have also heavily influenced secular philosophy.

True that there's nothing special about breath and soul being the same; "ruh" means both in Hebrew's Semitic cousin Arabic, too, though most Westerners wouldn't consider Arabic "foundational" to the English language or Western thought.

Chris said...

bulbul, thanks. I didn't know about this.

Lan, yes, I think you're right about the Christian angle.

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