SOLAR PLEXUS.

I was reading one of gilliland‘s wonderful posts, Jul. 11th, 2012 (in exhilarating Russian, like all of them), where after discovering the phrase таёжный богатырь ‘mighty warrior of the taiga’ (anybody know the original source? Google tells me it’s applied to Yakuts, Russians, and bears) I came to grief on “на уровне солнечного сплетения” ‘on the level of the sunny… interlacing?’ I got a good laugh on looking it up and discovering that солнечное сплетение [sólnechnoye spleténie] means, and is the literal equivalent of, ‘solar plexus,’ plexus being the past participle of Latin plectere ‘to plait, twine, interweave.’ But this led to another question: why the devil is the solar plexus called that? The dictionaries say it’s so named because of its radiating nerve fibers, but I’d be curious to know the history of the term. (It’s properly called the celiac plexus, celiac meaning ‘of the cavity’; I hadn’t known that either.)

Comments

  1. The WiPe say that the coeliac plexus is behind the stomach:

    The celiac plexus is often popularly referred to as the solar plexus, generally in the context of a blow to the stomach. In many of these cases, it is not the celiac plexus itself being referred to, but rather the region where it is located.

    It is behind the stomach and the omental bursa (??). Surely a good way to learn practical Latin – plectere for instance – would be from a series of adventures stories about explorers in the body – a combination of Gulliver’s Travels and Fantastic Voyage in Latin. Histories of medicine contain tons of fabulous information that could be used.
    Your post made me think of Henry Miller’s Rosy Crucifixion: Sexus, Plexus, Nexus (never read them). To my mind, overfed on the generalities of Advanced Thinking, there is not much difference between plexus and nexus: plectere is braid, nectere is bind, says MW. As a medical term, plexus seems to be used for bundles of nerves. Is there a matching lunar nexus somewhere inside ?

  2. I’m a little doubtful about the conventional claim too. In particular, many of the plexi can be identified with various traditional chakras, and the traditional color associated with the solar-plexus chakra is yellow. I do not find it explicitly linked to the Sun, but that doesn’t look like a complete coincidence.
    I tried to find out if there was a corresponding lunar plexus, but of course it would be a band name — that swamps everything.

  3. Gilliland (aka John Shemyakin) is by far one of the best Russian bloggers. Totally love his posts!

  4. Wiki.fr says that I thought: the nerves evoke solar rays. There are also some files related to yoga where speak about chakras as solar plexus chakra.

  5. And as for “таежный богатырь”, Google also suggests that the name is sometimes applied to cedars, especially growing in Siberia. Cedars can be really high, hence the metaphor.

  6. the nerves evoke solar rays
    Note that almost all visual presentations of anatomy, throughout history and even in modern medical works, are schematic. As a non-medical layman, peer into an open body (TV documentaries will help you here): what you “see” is a bloody mess. What the anatomist “sees” is rather different, because he has learned different conventions of seeing.
    Solar rays and X-rays evoke different things for different purposes. Both are artefacts, just as is the Ding an sich. Constructivism itself is an artefact. Thank you for your attention.

  7. I have always liked that some organs with etymologically opaque English names (opaque, that is, to those of us who don’t know Greek or Latin) have transparent names in Russian – like the plexus in solar plexus, or the thyroid, щитовидная железа.

  8. German has that pleasant feature too. Who can remember what an oesophagus is ? But a Speiseröhre is just a food pipe. Of course there’s also Ösophagus for when you want to get fancy.

  9. OED2’s first citation for the use of plexus in that sense (and it’s a sense very familiar to anyone used to anatomy) is from 1682: “T. Gibson Anat. 19 Fallopius will have it to proceed from the superiour and inferiour plexus of Nerves of the Abdomen.” I’m sure the mediaeval anatomists used the term, but Google Books isn’t co-operating with me and I can’t cite them from memory in Latin.
    Cf. also my comment here on anatomical translation and Russian bzw. German.

  10. To the layman “solar plexus” just generally means “that place under the ribs where, if you land a good punch, you can knock the wind out of somebody,” whereas to an anatomist, it’s a tangle of (autonomic) nerves. Still, I’ve been browsing Gray and Netter, and damned if I can see a radiant sun in the celiac plexus. It looks like a clot of yarn, just like every other nerve plexus.
    (I suspect the solar chakra is a yellow herring, though.)

  11. Aidan: I remembered your quote from Rogozov describing his self-appendectomy, and just now read a bit more about it in the internet. Absolutely remarkable man.
    Dale: damned if I can see a radiant sun in the celiac plexus. It looks like a clot of yarn
    Are you sure that the inventor of the expression “took it literally”, or was “describing what he saw” ? Do any representations of the sun – think of the Louis 14 emblem, or a bristly circle like a child learns to draw – look like what you see in the sky on a bright day ?
    Does a tall building look like it’s scraping the sky?

  12. Off topic, a question for science fiction readers.
    When I was 13 back in the early Fifties, I read a short story the title and author which I’ve never been able to recall. I remember the author was a medical doctor and the heroes were white blood cells.
    What impressed me was that from the POV (to be current and cool) of the leukocytes everything between the oral and anal sphincters was outside the body.
    Does this ring a bell?

  13. …from the POV (to be current and cool) of the leukocytes everything between the oral and anal sphincters was outside the body.
    This is true from a developmental topological perspective (we are a torus) and from a microbiological perspective (vast numbers of commensal bacteria live in our gut, but they’re strictly not permitted to go through its walls into the interior of our body).
    I don’t know that story, though.

  14. I assert for My Self that I do not behold the outward Creation & that to me it is a hindrance & not Action; it is as the Dirt upon my feet, No part of Me. “What,” it will be Questiond, “When the Sun rises do you not see a round disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea?” O no, no, I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.” I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight: I look thro it & not with it. —William Blake, “A Vision of the Last Judgment”

  15. Right on, John !

  16. >Grumbly Stu
    Other curious word in Anatomy is “duodenum”, obviously from Latin (“duodeni”, twelve each), and related to the length of that intestine part. In the hymn attributed to St Thomas Aquinas, “Pange lingua”, you can read “cibum turbae duodenae” (lit. “as food to the crowd Twelve”), here used as a number.

  17. megazver says:

    Ha-ha! You *did* read his blog!
    Told you he was good. 🙂

  18. Are you sure that the inventor of the expression “took it literally”, or was “describing what he saw” ? Do any representations of the sun – think of the Louis 14 emblem, or a bristly circle like a child learns to draw – look like what you see in the sky on a bright day ?
    Right, but the question is not “why does the solar plexus not actually look like a sun?” but “why did whoever named it call it that, considering that it looks nothing like a sun?” The answer might, for instance, have to do with some long-forgotten medieval theory comparable to that of the humors, but it is almost certainly not “they picked a name at random.”
    Told you he was good. 🙂
    Yes, and I thank you for putting me on to him; he’s a daily joy to read. I don’t know how he finds time to write so much and so well, though!

  19. Right, but the question is not “why does the solar plexus not actually look like a sun?”
    I can’t find in my comments anything that might be construed as a claim that “the solar plexus does not actually look like a sun”. I asked: “do any representations … look like …”. The answer I expected to get was: “Well, yes and no”.
    The answer might, for instance, have to do with some long-forgotten medieval theory comparable to that of the humors,
    Exactly. And possibly not even a “theory”, but more a convention, like the bristly circle the child draws. But the bristly circle is not drawn any old way, and historical conventions are unlikely to have arisen by coin-tossing.
    but it is almost certainly not “they picked a name at random.”
    I nowhere suggested that this is what happened. Perhaps you’re not claiming that I did – however, I have noticed in the past that whenever I bring up the idea of social or epistemological constructivism, you react (if at all) as if this involves a claim that everything “is arbitrary” or “is random”.
    If you looked into Luhmann’s Gesellschaftstruktur und Semantik you would have a better idea of what up. The title itself contains the word Struktur, which rules out randomness. Luhman says explicitly from time to time that his brand of “constructivism” does not posit “arbitrariness”. I myself never thought it did, but apparently – as my own experience has confirmed – there are many people who tend to equate degrees of freedom with degrees of chaos when it comes to reality and knowledge.
    To point out that cakes can be made in different ways with different ingredients is not to claim that they can be made from a random assortment of ingredients.

  20. By the way, I just finished Durkheim’s De la division du travail social (second edition, the first was in 1893) down to the last page. There you find the explicitly formulated elements which Luhmann et al. have elaborated. These ideas have been around for a long time – but I knew nothing about them until about 10 years ago.

  21. I feel very strongly that it is time for a massive round of wordplay now, but I don’t have the time (nor the Latin, neither). Nexus plexus plectrum guitar-string catgut duodenum spectrum (speculate) X-ray prism (prison) heliocentric medieval orbit arbitrary orb-and-sceptre sceptic (septic?) degree of arbitrariness macht degree of freiheit. Noetica, I leave this at your door in a rush basket, or at least in a rush. Also the crumbs of Schrödinger’s gateau.

  22. Thanks, Vasha. I am aware of the two perspectives you mention.
    I suppose it’s possible the story didn’t get a lot of reprintings, and also that I don’t recall enough clues to find it.

  23. just skimmed reading this, interesting http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chakra
    http://www.healthguidance.org/entry/13938/1/The-Solar-Plexus-Chakra.html
    they say it could be compared to the endocrine system in the western medicine, but the lymphatic system seems also like plausible to suggest as for chakras, which is not much studied too, in the mongolian medicine the main things are khii(air/circulation-respiratory), shar(bile, digestive-metabolism),  badgan(lymph, immunology) equivalents, i
    guess, but it’s difficult to read older traditional medicine books, sounds too as if like obsolete

  24. I nowhere suggested that this is what happened. Perhaps you’re not claiming that I did
    No, not at all. Just eliminating the null hypothesis.

  25. megazver says:

    Yes, and I thank you for putting me on to him; he’s a daily joy to read. I don’t know how he finds time to write so much and so well, though!
    Well, he does his ghulams and nookers to take care of things. Not to mention the housekeeper Tatiana, she of scarlet lips.

  26. megazver says:

    *does have

  27. Redder, “by far one of the best”? What can that possibly mean?

  28. Good catch. “One of the best”, OK; “by far the best”, OK; but “by far one of the best” is a pile-up on the phrase highway. There are no fatalities, though, so there’s no need to rescind anybody’s license to murder the language.

  29. I should have said, the representations in Gray & Netter don’t resemble any 17th Century European representations of the sun that I recollect. Sheesh. The chances are indeed great that whoever named it was a) looking at an engraving that may or may not have looked like Netter and b) thinking of representations of the sun that I have never seen. May I go now? Is detention over?

  30. Sorry about that, Dale. I just can’t get it into my head that the words which appear here have been written by people who are probably still alive. In my reading I usually deal with the dead.
    I myself am perfectly indifferent when someone tears into some harmless remark I make here. You won’t catch me getting all hurt and touchy. No, not me. No way. Never. I’m sure somebody can vouch for that. Anybody out there ?

  31. Grumbly is as impervious to criticism as a donkey. Oops, wrong thread.

  32. ØØps: Thanks for corroborating !

  33. 🙂
    I’m not dead yet! I think I’ll go for a little walk!

  34. There is a teaching in yoga about the creative aspect of … “all that is” lying dormant at the base of the spine (this ofcourse incorporates the concept of chakras) which through spiritual practice/discipline can be awakened tol rise back through the chakras (balancing each on its ascent) to be reunited with the divine apsect of “all that is” upon reaching the crown chakra. (Very simplified version)
    I thought it was interesting to learn that the entrance to a holy site (shrine, war memorial etc) is called a sacrum. The sacrum of course being the fused bones at the center of the pelvis also. With this in mind I was thinking that the solar plexus maybe named so as a analogy to what is happening there. I haven’t looked into the anatomy of it yet, just what I’ve read here and a few other sites, but its seems the solar plexus is a point where nerves leaving the spine interweave and spread throughout the viscera. The sun has always been analogous with spirit, and the nervous system is how spirit inhabits/achors/interacts with a physical body. So.. maybe “spirit interweaving” is why it was named as it is. Im sure there will be many more examples of body parts/regions being named along more esoteric lines. Food for thought.
    Ps. I’d you look into the teachings about chakras, the era, pingala and sushumna nadis will eventually be explained as the energetic pathways along the spine with the eda and pingala crisscrossing the sushumna and giving each chakra its particular spin. If you drew this on paper, it would look very similar to the caduceus, a symbol that has been used to represent healing for a long time. Most medical institutions still use it now, though tradition is probably the only explanation they can fathom for why. More food for thought.
    Thanks for the thread!!

  35. David Marjanović says:

    the caduceus, a symbol that has been used to represent healing for a long time. Most medical institutions still use it now, though tradition is probably the only explanation they can fathom for why.

    Far from it. How the caduceus became misinterpreted as a symbol of medicine in the US – not so much elsewhere – is documented quite well, and to learn about that you need to go no further than Wikipedia.

  36. Star Way says:

    The Solar Plexus actually relates to the Solar system, which is why it is called the Solar Plexus. It is the birthplace of the Solar embodiment. The body (from neck down), relates to the Planetary level of things (particularly Heart – anagram Earth). Various organs such as the liver (Jupiter), relate to the other planets at the All Planetary level. The fingers are also tuning forks to the various planets. The head relates to the Sun level. So the Solar Plexus relates to the Solar level of things and the whole body, head, aura etc is included in the same way that the Solar System encompasses the Sun, Planets, moons etc – in fact everything inside the aura of the whole Solar System. As above, so below. Whoever named it the Solar Plexus must have know something.

  37. David Marjanović says:

    Heart – anagram Earth

    Astrology wasn’t invented in English, you know, and this trick works exclusively in English. You need to go no further than German to find Herz and Erde – similar but not anagrams.

    Whoever named it the Solar Plexus must have know something.

    They certainly thought they knew something!

  38. Robbert Blok says:

    The human body has a biomagnetic toroidal field that we know as the chakra system. At the centre of a toroidal field we find the singularity and flux lines being folded together into it in phi ratios before they unfold back out in a more orderly fashion. Creating order out of chaos, which is what life does. Hens the weaving part. In the body this location is the solar plexus. This singularity is called many things; Sun, light, fire, Jesus, Krishna, black hole, tree of life, spirit (spiral), soul, consiousness… The singularity in the solarsystem is the sun. Solar means so (great, true) lar (heart, fire, centre, household, teacher). Solar does not mean sun. It means singularity.

  39. John Cowan says:

    This seems to have become the unofficial LH mumbo-jumbo page. As someone with my own unofficial page, I mustn’t grumble.

  40. David Marjanović says:

    The human body has a biomagnetic toroidal field that we know as the chakra system.

    If so, we could measure it with, y’know, another magnet.

    we find the singularity

    A black hole inside a human being would immediately drop to the center of the Earth. Nothing could stop it.

    The singularity in the solarsystem is the sun.

    No, the sun is not a black hole. Trust me, you would have noticed… assuming you’d even exist.

  41. Solar Plexus

    A poem inspired by Robbert Blok

    Hens the weaving part.
    Geese the knitting rend,
    Ducks the spinning start,
    Swans the texture mend.
    Make the chakras burn,
    In singularity,
    Let the magnets turn
    Up some hilarity.

  42. Found my way here on a random Saturday rambling begun with the same question: How did this particular region of the human body come to be called the solar plexus?

    One of my most verified sources states that the Divine, or Cosmic Forces, or Life & Consciousness (all pretty interchangable terms for my purposes here) flow into the human body at what we refer to as the solar plexus.

    GIven historical worship of the sun (or more rightly stated and understood, the worship of the Being in the Sun) I thought perhaps the name arose in early antiquity, and demonstrated some awareness alluding to the above – that the Divine flows into the human body at this location, but the earliest reference I’ve found so far is 17th C.

    In the 18th C Emmanuel Swedenborg titled one of his most famous works Arcana Coelestia, translasted ever since as “The Secrets of Heaven.” So I was surprised to find that the common medical name of this region is coeliacus plexus (recently modernized to celiac plexus, apparently).

    When I went to check roots, to see if coel- indeed referred to things heavenly, I found mixed results. Most sites stated that coel- references “a cavity,” and that it is cael- that refers to heaven. But google translate offers coelum as the first translation of heaven, and caelum as an alternate.

    Perhaps explaining this confusion (while adding more), on another site I read that in late antiquity” the diphthongs AE and OE both came to resemble long E (“ay”) with the result that caelum (heavenly) previously pronounced “ky-loom” was now “chay-loom” in spoken Latin. This change played havoc with spelling, and caelum was often spelled coelum.”

    I haven’t gotten an answer to my original question yet, but certainly find it intriguing that both the colloquial and Latin names for this region can indeed be associated with the Divine.

    Thank you for your enduring curiousity about language, and providing me a place to share my wanderings and musings 🙂

  43. Lars Mathiesen says:

    @Bonnie, your source is right about Classical Latin ae and oe merging in the later stages of the language, and the merged sound not always being spelled as it was classically. (It could go both ways).

    The original coelum is a loan word from Greek into Classical Latin, meaning ‘belly,’ and it’s cognate with English hollow.

    The original caelum is an inherited word in Classical Latin, meaning ‘(dome of the) sky,’ and it’s cognate with English whole.

    Plexus from the verb plectere means or ‘braided,’ and is cognate with English plait (which is a loan word from French). Among the Germanic languages, Danish still has the inherited form flette.

    The celiac plexus is often described as having nerves radiating out to various abdominal organs, and what the sun does is radiate. I haven’t tracked down the 1771 citation for the original use of solar in the anatomical sense, but Merriam-Webster Collegiate agrees that it’s about radiating nerves. Etymonline.com, on the other hand, says “apparently so called from its central position in the body”

  44. David Marjanović says:

    Danish still has the inherited form flette.

    More transparently, the verb is flechten, flocht, geflochten in German.

  45. Stu Clayton says:

    # In älteren Schriften wird das Sonnengeflecht aufgrund seiner Funktion auch als Unterleibsgehirn (lat. Cerebrum abdominale) bezeichnet,[4] dem Empfindungen wie Sympathie und Gemeinschaftsgefühl zugeschrieben werden,[5] sowie der Sitz des dem Unbewussten zugeordneten Teils der Seele.[6] #

    Gut brain !

  46. Thank you, Lars, for that elucidation!

    Wild how the streams of languages flow together.

    Does dispel somewhat my notion of a possible divine association with both terms – but knowing me, I’ll blithely carry on believing what I like, nonetheless. Lol.

    Curious: I’m familiar with loan words, of course – but what’s an “inherited word”?

  47. David Marjanović says:

    Everything that’s not a loanword (or made up on the spot) 🙂

  48. In other words (to take a couple of examples), aunt was borrowed from Old French ante, so it’s a loanword, while mother is from Middle English moder, from Old English mōdor, from Proto-Germanic *mōdēr, from a Proto-Indo-European word we reconstruct as *méh₂tēr (though we don’t know exactly how it would have sounded), so it’s inherited — it wasn’t borrowed from another language but passed down from generation to generation in the same language.

  49. Thank you, all, for your contribution to my understanding 🙂

    Steve, you answered the question within my question – “inherited from where?” If one wanted to trace back the, er, geneology of cael-, for example, is there a way to go about that?

    David, when you say “More transparently, the verb is flechten, flocht, geflochten in German,” do you imply that there are nuances in the German that expand our understanding of “braided?” English is so very flat, metaphorically speaking.

    And Stu, I haven’t translated yet your German contribution, but yes, Gut Brain! 🙂 I thought of this, too, wondering how tight the relationship is between the plexus in question and our resident collections of alchemist microfauna.

  50. PlasticPaddy says:

    @bonnie
    Depends on what you mean by “trace back”. Prehistoric peoples did not leave explicit language records, otherwise they would not be prehistoric 😊 You can google “caelum etymology” which brings you to Wiktionary and a (prehistoric) Proto-Indo-European root *keh2ilom (the * means it is an extrapolation from theory applied to known cognates from “historic” languages) with some explanation and a statement that this etymology is uncertain. To find out why this is uncertain, you could buy de Vaan’s Etymological Dictionary of the Latin Language or consult the book, if you have access to a library that has it.

  51. Lars Mathiesen says:

    @Bonnie, what David meant about flechten is just that it preserves more of the inherited sounds than Danish does — omitting lots of details, the Germanic languages as a group turned original p and k into f and ch (as in loch) but then Danish merged the latter with the following t in this word. So German flechten has a more transparent correspondence to Latin plectere than Danish flette has. (The endings are another story, Latin and Germanic have each added their own to the inherited stem).

    (I was lazy and just used the Danish form because it was mentioned in an online etymology [and I was sure it was correct, being a native speaker], without checking if it was attested in a better-known language like German).

  52. David Marjanović says:

    Exactly.

    I should post a link to Grimm’s law.

  53. What a delight to have wandered amongst you all.

    PlasticPaddy, I didn’t understand how quickly one could get to “prehistoric” in a word’s genealogy. So many knowledges of the ancient world, lost.

    And tying in to what you, Lars and David, point at: Thinking of times when we humans understood that each letter – and before letters, the corresponding sounds that letters came to represent – each themselves carried meaning, like music, rich and evocative. Words were built not of the flat letters that we understand today, but of tones of meaning. I imagine they still are; we’ve just misplaced the codes.

    Thank you for taking the time to address my queries 🙂

  54. David Marjanović says:

    I wasn’t pointing at that, because… for the most part it’s just not true. Sure there are words that imitate sounds or symbolize what they represent, but they aren’t terribly common and, by all evidence, never have been. Most correspondences between sounds and meanings are arbitrary.

    It even happens that words are reinterpreted as onomatopoetic. I can offer two examples from German:

    Pfeifen means “to whistle”, which is kind of what it sounds like. But it comes, by two regular sound shifts that applied across the entire word inventory of the language, from what sounded like “peep” and meant just that – noises made by mice or little birds.

    Schiffen means “to piss”, which is kind of what it sounds like. My sister even insists it can only refer to men pissing. But Schiff is “ship”, and schiffen is a euphemistic metaphor from a time when potties were boat-shaped.

  55. John Cowan says:

    Thank you, all, for your contribution to my understanding

    And thank you for contributing new bloooood to our coven joining our merry band commenting where few have commented before, though many times each whatever, and we hope you’ll read and comment on more posts, often.

    The link “Commented-on Languagehat Posts” above will give you all the posts in the order of the most recent comment on them. Feel free to skim this list and check out anything that interests you. Foreign to the Hattics is the notion of a “out of date post”; quite unknown to them is the idea of a post “closed to commenting”.

  56. quite unknown to them is the idea of a post “closed to commenting”.

    Well, largely unknown these days, though there are tales of the Bad Old Days of Spammer Hell…

  57. John Emerson says:

    As I remember, one thread on Paul Valery reached 1000 comments, mostly by two guys, over a period of a couple years.

  58. David Eddyshaw says:

    “A thread is never finished; it is only abandoned.”

  59. As I remember, one thread on Paul Valery reached 1000 comments, mostly by two guys, over a period of a couple years.

    I’ll bet you’re thinking of the immortal Tabellion.

  60. We better comment as much as we can while we can, before we run out of room on earth.

  61. @John Cowan: Thank you for the warm welcome and the heartful laugh – my second in two days on this site! I may indeed wander by more often.

    @David: Bless you, you took the bait (the purpose of which I only acknowledged to myself in retrospect, of course). You and Lars were pointing only in the most oblique way; I leapt from there. It’s what I do.

    My books are in storage, so I can’t give exact references, but there is evidence that language evolved from song, and that meaning was, once upon a time, carried in tone.

    Ian McGilchrist, in his tour de force “The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World” devotes a good portion of a chapter to the archeological evidence and corresponding theories that develop this idea.

    The leap from song to written word, and to meaning carried in letters, I found in Fabre d’Olivet’s “La Langue Hébraïque Restituée Et Le Véritable Sens Des Mots Hébreux” (the translated title, “The Hebraic Tongue Restored” underscores my complaint about the flatness of English). d’Olivet made a formidable case in the 18th C that each Hebrew letter/sound carries meaning, and words indeed are built of roots built, in turn, from these basic forms. He is adamant that the original texts of the Hebrews cannot be understood without restoring some understanding of the meaning of these roots and then demonstrated … certainly a deeper and quite coherent rendering of the first ten chapters of Genesis using the root system he revealed.

    A bit of my evidence comes from a conversation with a Navajo friend. His last name is a not-uncommon English word, and I asked what it was in Navajo. When he told me, I asked what it meant, and his response was a short paragraph that held much deeper (and more relational!) qualities than our English word, and alluded to even more depth and relation. I asked him then about certain prayers I knew of from the Navajo, if they too had deeper meanings than appeared in English and he scoffed, almost disgusted, saying in English they were like kindergarten verses.

    This conversation reminded me of the response I’d read about years ago by the Navajo elders when one of the tribe developed a written version of their language. They commended him, but added, “That’s not our language,” which I understood as indicating that something essential to the meaning was in the tones.

    I have more tidbits about here somewhere, but I do go on.

    Most modern correspondences between sound and meaning are certainly arbitrary, I absolutely agree. I was wondering, more directly related to your response, how much, if any, translation and interlingual adoption of words has played a role in loosening those associations. Or if, as d’Olivet argues, the correspondences were lost long, long ago.

    I know I keep saying it, but seriously: thank you. Too. much. fun.

  62. As much as other languages have some amazing devices which don’t carry over to English, the grass is always etc. English has some amazing toys of its own which one gets so used to, they don’t stand out. Phrasal verbs are one of my favorites.

  63. Well, largely unknown these days, though there are tales of the Bad Old Days of Spammer Hell…

    We tend to curse the ways of Akismet the Disgusting, Lord of Filth, Mistress of Spam, S(He) who is beyond the ken of mere mortals. But we tend to forget how s/he protects us so thoroughly from the eldritch, squamous, rugose, noisome, tenebrous, stygian, unaussprechlich (you get the idea) creatures from beyond the fields we know. So let us from time to time bless him for her great gifts to us.

  64. David Eddyshaw says:

    protects us so thoroughly from the eldritch, squamous, rugose, noisome, tenebrous, stygian, unaussprechlich

    … and from the batrachian, too (if properly configured.)

  65. David Marjanović says:

    d’Olivet made a formidable case in the 18th C that each Hebrew letter/sound carries meaning, and words indeed are built of roots built, in turn, from these basic forms.

    With over 200 years of hindsight, the best we can say about this is “nice try”.

    Languages aren’t invented from scratch. (…except when they are, but none of those has caught on.) They develop from earlier languages. Hebrew is a Semitic language, so d’Olivet shouldn’t have looked at Hebrew, he should have reconstructed Proto-Semitic (impossible at the time, I know) and then looked at that. Except that the Semitic language family is just a branch of the very large Afro-Asiatic family, so he should have reconstructed Proto-Afro-Asiatic and then looked at that. Except that Afro-Asiatic seems to have relatives as well, and so on.

    and then demonstrated … certainly a deeper and quite coherent rendering of the first ten chapters of Genesis using the root system he revealed.

    That’s actually a point against his idea, because even the first two chapters of Genesis consist of two stories that developed wholly independently and came to be parts of a single work only much later.

    His last name is a not-uncommon English word, and I asked what it was in Navajo. When he told me, I asked what it meant, and his response was a short paragraph that held much deeper (and more relational!) qualities than our English word, and alluded to even more depth and relation. […] if they too had deeper meanings than appeared in English and he scoffed, almost disgusted, saying in English they were like kindergarten verses.

    Probably that just means 1 : 1 translation isn’t possible in these cases, so he resorted to explanations instead. That happens a lot, even between closely related languages.

    something essential to the meaning was in the tones

    Navajo does indeed distinguish tones in the linguistic sense: short vowels can have high or low tone, long vowels can additionally have rising or falling tone. The tones are sometimes the only difference between words with different meanings – and that’s why they’re spelled out in the spelling system.

  66. John Cowan says:

    That spelling system, however, became very unpopular for reasons having nothing to do with its linguistic excellence: the official responsible for encouraging its use was also infamous for culling a lot of Navajo sheep (because the pasture was overgrazed) without bothering to involve the Navajo in the process. Two good ideas that got extraordinarily bad execution.

  67. My play on the possible superfluity of the word rugose

    Yarec read the decoded message two more times, and he was forced to conclude it was genuine. It had used the work “rugose,” which indicated that the mission was considered a high priority, although not the highest. So it appeared that he would be taking the job.

    Lovecraft tends to take heat for overusing modifiers, but his reputation for excess is somewhat undeserved. He certainly did like long and times obscure words, but he also wrote plenty of active prose. For example, “The Thing cannot be described—there is no language for such abysms of shrieking and immemorial lunacy, such eldritch contradictions of all matter, force, and cosmic order,” is followed immediately by, “A mountain walked or stumbled,” which I find at least as disturbing.

  68. David Marjanović says:

    That spelling system, however, became very unpopular

    Are you sure you’re talking about the same one? Because the one I’m talking about, the only one I’ve seen in use, is used on the Navajo Wikipedia, on Navajo Nation signage (photos near the top of the article I’m linking to), in YouTube videos by native speakers and so on.

  69. John Cowan says:

    Yes, that’s the one I mean.

    Navajos mostly live in a diglossia where they speak English or Navajo as appropriate to the cirumstances, and read and write English almost exclusively. This should be entirely familiar to you. The exceptions are Christianity, which always operates in translation (but has not penetrated all that deeply into the culture, with most Navajos rejecting it for traditional religion, secularism, or the peyote church) and fairly superficial uses by the Navajo government.

    The government will put Navajo on a sign, but records are kept in English, legal cases are argued in English, and interpreters are used when witnesses have no English. (At Eichmann’s trial, everything said was interpreted into English, French, German, and Hebrew. But the judges, all of them German Jews, did not pretend not to understand Eichmann until they heard Hebrew translation, and in fact interrogated him directly in German.)

    When Navajo-speaking Navajos go to school (many still don’t), they may get sink-or-swim English, or they may get Navajo for a grade or two with or without Navajo literacy, or (in the best case) they learn Navajo literacy, and then transition to both Navajo and English literacy. But such best-case schools are still rare despite government support for them: there are still not enough qualified teachers who can teach Navajo (and are willing to undergo the professional stigma). In later life, literate Navajos may use the orthography for private purposes such as writing letters or notes or lists.

    But all this may be moot soon enough: something like half of all preschoolers have no Navajo, although it is still far and away the largest Native language in the U.S.

  70. None of that explains your “very unpopular,” which implies they disliked and avoided it rather than simply operating in English most of the time.

  71. John Cowan says:

    I have evidence (not to hand, alas) that it was very unpopular when it was introduced, unlike, say, the Cherokee orthography, which was instantly popular and remained so until the language (almost) died. The current school-based revival of Cherokee also involves teaching the orthography.

  72. David Marjanović says:

    This should be entirely familiar to you.

    It is, and I knew that Navajo isn’t written much – but you’re saying that when it is written, or would otherwise be written, the official orthography is avoided specifically, leaving me wondering what the alternatives even are.

    (Mapu{z|d}ungun isn’t written much either, but the adherents of the different orthographies seem to fight a lot.)

  73. No, I think he’s saying that they use it faute de mieux but dislike it.

  74. John Cowan says:

    Neither. I am saying that the Young/Morgan orthography, the only one still in use, and designed in the 1930s and ’40s by an Anglo and a Navajo linguist, was disliked at the time of its introduction because the Bureau of Indian Affairs official who was pushing it was himself widely disliked for unrelated reasons. This has generalized into opposition to learning to read and write Navajo at all, with the usual rationalizations, like the claim that Navajo can’t be written (whereas the orthography is both phonemic and tonemic).

  75. Mark Antrobus says:

    Very enjoyable. Thank you Menschen. What do you think about the etymology of Mensch ? with Tamil .manasan : a person with a mind (manas – solar plexus) related to Latin mens which means mind as feeling and Polynesian mana. English seems anatomical while Tamil feels phenomenological.

  76. The vision of cavernous water snakes exists with the Hopi first people as Kachina and Australian first people too, in China perhaps as Dragons, India definitely as the Nāga, the keepers of wisdom. How is this link maintained in the “modern” unconscious? Is the fear of snakes a fear of wisdom? Is the slaying of the dragon along the lay – lines in Britain by the Christians symbolic of the slaying or suppression of ancient mystical wisdom?

  77. David Marjanović says:

    What do you think about the etymology of Mensch ?

    What do you mean by “what do you think”? You can just look up two centuries of scholarship on it. Once you know that the oldest recorded form (about 1000 years old) was spelled manisco, it’s easy: it’s “the man-ish one”, where man had its old meaning of “human being”, not the new one of “adult male human being”, so the whole thing meant “the human one”. Man itself is actually mann, and that’s related to Manu of Hinduism because Germanic regularly turned -nw- into -nn-.

    Latin mens is actually ment-s, but Latin had a complete ban on the sequence -ts-. I can’t see how it could be related to anything in the Tamil word. The Polynesian languages are so far away, not just geographically, that any relation is even less likely.

    How is this link maintained in the “modern” unconscious?

    What unconscious?

    Is the fear of snakes a fear of wisdom?

    What fear of snakes? That’s a cultural thing. I keep running into the claim that we’re born with it, but I’m not the only one who lacks it – and, mind you, I’ve always been proud to be a confessing coward.

    Is the slaying of the dragon along the lay – lines in Britain by the Christians symbolic of the slaying or suppression of ancient mystical wisdom?

    No, why?

    The dragon-slaying myths of, roughly speaking, Europe and northern India are all related to each other. Their common theme is that the dragon keeps something that needs to circulate (water or riches: cattle, gold) from circulating, and normal life can only begin (or resume) once the dragon is slain. That stuff is two thousand years older than Christianity, if not more.

Speak Your Mind

*