December 31, 2007

The Origin of Speeches: Wrathful Dispersion for real?

Following up on "The comparative theology of linguistic diversity" (12/31/2007), Tracy Walsh has written to draw my attention to Isaac E. Mozeson, "The Origin of Speeches: Intelligent Design in Language". This book is apparently not a joke. The description on's web site reads:

The Origin of Speeches begins by recapping the history of our views about the source of language. It then debunks the errors that infuse your dictionary, like those about how words in "unrelated" languages could only have identical sound and sense by "coincidence." It does so with both quality and quantity of data. The next chapters give anyone the skills to sleuth out the Edenic origin of any human word. One learns about letters that shift in sound and location, and letters that drop in and drop out. We discover how Edenics works much like other natural sciences, such as chemistry and physics. Like-sounding opposite words were certainly programmed, not pragmatically evolved.

According to the review by Richard D. Wilkins, "Examples are provided here in copious detail; many hundreds more English words and foreign cognates can be explored in the companion E-Word CD Dictionary." There's an Edenics website:

Here you will discover that ALL human words contain forms of the Edenic roots within them. These proto-Semitic or early Biblical Hebrew words were programmed into our common ancestors, Adam and Eve, before the language dispersion, or babble at the Tower of Babel -- which kickstarted multi-national human history.

In the Edenics FAQ, Mozeson claims (improbably) that "Since the 1990s M.I.T. Professor Noam Chomsky was behind attacks on The Word in academic journals, and even forced the editor of a chain of Midwest Jewish newspapers, The National Jewish Post & Opinion, to drop an Edenics column. Amazingly, this world-class linguist and anarchist had to write a negative review for where he put absurd words in my mouth."

Mozeson is also the author of "The Word: The Dictionary that Reveals the Hebrew Sources of English".

His theory seems to be that God was a sort of weak cryptographer, who didn't actually create any new languages after Babel, but simply mixed up the old ones ("letters that shift in sound and location, and letters that drop in and out") in ways that Mozeson has figured out how to decrypt.

This strikes me as crank etymology with a religious overlay, rather than a serious attempt at rationalizing the linguistic aspects of Genesis.

[Update -- Rosie Redfield writes:

The biological equivalent of Edenics is Baraminology - phylogenetic analysis of the evolution that's assumed to have happened since Noah's Ark. Wikipedia has the details.

It seems to me that Baraminology is closer to this. ]

[Update #2 -- John Brewer writes:

no discussion of the intersection between historical linguistics and Biblical study should be considered complete without a mention of the legendary 17th century or thereabouts scholar who determined that Eden was at least tri-lingual, with God speaking Swedish, Adam speaking Danish, and the serpent speaking French. Googling seems to attribute this to someone named Andreas Kemke. (I remember the theory, but not the name of the theorist, from my undergraduate days in the pre-Google 80's.) LL seems not to have referred to it previously (assuming I'm working the search feature correctly), but Sally Thomason discussed the Kemke Hypothesis in a 1994 post to something called Darwin-L.

I am particularly intrigued by the Wrathful Dispersion Theory because the scriptural account of Babel seems to be pretty much the only thing in Genesis prior to the birth of Abraham which does not appear to be in irreconcilable tension with the consensus of modern secular science (at least if you don't get hung up on the dating of the event, which of course may vary depending on which textual tradition for Genesis you think is authoritative). Not that the plain-of-Shinar account has been confirmed; rather the ultimate relationship, if any, between Proto-Indo-European and, say, Proto-Na-Dene remains at least as unexplained as the origin of language in the first place. It's not clear whether this is because historical linguistics hasn't achieved very much compared to geology, biology, astronomy etc etc etc or because its practitioners are more modest and thus more willing to 'fess up that they don't have sufficient data to answer certain very interesting questions and may never get to the point of being able to answer them.

By the way, there is a certain Christian tradition of understanding the gift of tongues recorded in Acts as a specific reversal of the unfortunate results of Wrathful Dispersion, which can be seen in some of the Eastern Orthodox hymns used on Pentecost Sunday, such as the konkation which begins (in one English translation) "When the Most High came down and confused the tongues, He divided the nations, but when He distributed the tongues of fire, He called all to unity."

Happy New Year!

And Faith Jones writes:

Isaac Mozeson reminds me of Izzy Cohen. This guy shows up on all kinds of listservs promoting the idea that idioms are based on mis-hearings of the Hebrew Bible, a string of Hebrew words, or in a pinch Aramaic ones. Who exactly is supposed to have mis-heard someone speaking Biblical Hebrew and assimilated these expressions into modern English--presumably a time-traveller of some kind--is not explained.

Here are some places where he expounds his theory. Google "Izzy Cohen idioms" to get lots more. Very good for a laugh.

I worked for a number of years as a Judaica librarian, and it was my observation that many people felt the need to promote Hebrew and/or Aramaic as a source for pretty much any language. This mania was certainly found among the highly religious, but many moderately observant Jews latched on to the language issue as well. It seemed to me at times the religious fervour they couldn't work up for the theology they invested instead in linguistics. This perhaps made them feel that the basis of their belief was scientific rather than superstitious. In the event it seems to amount to the same thing.


Posted by Mark Liberman at December 31, 2007 03:18 PM