Voortgang. Jaargang 15

auteur: [tijdschrift] Voortgang

bron: Voortgang. Jaargang 15. Stichting Neerlandistiek VU, Amsterdam / Nodus Publikationen, Münster 1995



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Becanus' etymological methods
R.A. Naborn

1. Introduction

In this paper1 I would like to discuss the etymological methods used by Joannes Goropius Becanus, a 16th-century scholar who is still fairly popular today. He is, unfortunately, known by most people for his claim that Dutch was the language spoken in the Garden of Eden. I would like to focus on similarities between the method used by Becanus and that used by Plato some 2000 years earlier.

In the linguistic part of his works Becanus (Jan van Gorp of Hilvarenbeek, 1519-1573) basically tried to prove that his native language, Dutch, or rather the variety spoken in Antwerp, was the oldest language in the world. In general, Becanus followed the established methods for etymologizing, but he also clearly introduced one particular method of his own: the reversibility of syllables, resulting in an opposite meaning. If, in addition, there is transfer from one language to another, then this neutralizes the meaning change.

2. Etymologies in Plato's Cratylus

2.1. Introduction

In the dialogue Cratylus Plato uses quite a few etymologies, also to prove something about the origin of language, or so it appears. In Becanus' days the seriousness of the dialogue was not being questioned as it is done today. Yet, it is impossible to fully understand and know what Plato's intentions were when writing the Cratylus. This is partly because we do not know enough about the persons and characters to whom Plato refers, and partly because his character Socrates does not seem to pronounce himself in favor of any of the theories discussed. No clear answer is given to the question of the rightness of names,2 on which three theories are presented in the Cratylus: Hermogenes' ‘convention and agreement’, Cratylus' ‘inherent correctness in names’, and the theory that Socrates seems to develop in the course of the dialogue (showing that neither Hermogenes nor Cratylus is right).

2.2. The etymologies in the Cratylus

The character Socrates does not use etymologies to prove that the origin of language lies in Greece, and he does not claim that Greek is the oldest language. He uses etymologies to find out whether, at least originally, names correctly represented the images they stood for.

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Based on Lersch's3 classification of etymologies it is possible to categorize the different etymologies found in the Cratylus into four different groups: 1. Insertion and addition of letters; 2. Deletion; 3. Replacement; 4. Inversion. I would like to add a fifth category, Words of foreign origin, to complete the analysis of the words discussed in the Cratylus, in which I found a total number of 204 etymologies.

2.2.1. Insertion and addition of letters (38)

About 20% of Plato's etymologies in the Cratylus fit in this category. They range from words that have vowels, consonants or both added to the original words, to words with entire syllables added:

oíēsis ‘belief’ < oîsis ‘motion’ (420 C)4

andreía ‘courage’ < anreía ‘opposite flow’ (414 A)

kerdaléos ‘gainful’ < kérdos ‘gain’ (417 B).

2.2.2. Deletion (110)

More than half of the etymologies found in the Cratylus are the result of subtraction and/or contraction. It seems that Plato's basic etymological derivation consists of finding a phrase or a number of words that contain (most of) the consonants and vowels of the ‘resulting’ word:

phrónēsis ‘wisdom’ < ónēsis phorâs ‘benefit of motion’ (411 D)

deilía ‘cowardice’ < deín lían ‘greatest bond of the soul’ (415 C)

aēr ‘air’ < aeì rheî ‘it is always flowing’ (410 B)

2.2.3. Replacement (39)

Under this category, with roughly one-fifth of all the Cratylus etymologies, one will find words that have undergone consonant and/or vowel changes:

sôma ‘body’ < sêma ‘tomb; sign’ (400 B)

dóxa ‘opinion’ < tóxon ‘bow’ (420 B)

pistón ‘faithful’ < histán ‘it stops’ (437 B)

2.2.4. Inversion (11)

Although Lersch distinguishes many different types of inversions (hyperthesis, metathesis, antithesis, enallage, and hyperbibasmos)5 as one of the main etymological methods used by the Greeks, in Plato's Cratylus only eleven examples that fit this category can be found. Most inversions involve some kind of metathesis:

Tántalos < talanteía ‘balancing’ (395 E)

phrónēsis ‘wisdom’ < ónēsis phorâs ‘benefit of motion’ (411 D)

2.2.5. Foreign origin (8)

The character Socrates clearly says that the assumption that some words have a foreign origin is ‘a contrivance (mēchanē) of his’ (409 D and 416 A), for words for which he cannot find an easy explanation. Since no etymological derivation is given, I have not counted these as etymologies.

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The character Socrates does not try to imply that foreign origin means that there are other languages older than Greek: in his opinion, many Greeks have adopted many foreign words (see 409 E).

2.3. Plato's theory

To explain his theory behind the etymological methods, Plato makes Socrates say that ‘we often put in or take out letters, making the names different from the meaning we intend, and we change the accent [...]. In other instances, on the contrary, we insert letters and pronounce grave accents as acute’. (399 A-B) On several occasions he mentions euphonic reasons for the addition and the subtraction of certain letters (e.g. 402 E, 404 D, 412 E).

About single letters Plato says the following: alpha often signifies ‘together’, ‘concord’ (405 C), and is also assigned to greatness (427 C). Rho expresses motion (426 D); iota, ‘everything subtle, which can most readily pass through all things’. (426 E) Phi, psi, sigma and zeta are used to imitate notions like ‘cold’, ‘seething’, ‘shake’ and ‘shock’, ‘because those letters are pronounced with much breath’. (427 A) Lambda indicates gliding (427 B); nu, anything internal, for it is an ‘internal sound’. (427 C) Eta is assigned to length (427 C), and o is used for roundness (427 C).

Perhaps Plato reveals most about his theories when he makes Socrates say (414 C) that

the original words have before now been completely buried by those who wished to dress them up, for they have added and subtracted letters for the sake of euphony and have distorted the words in every way for ornamentation or merely in the lapse of time.


Socrates continues (414 D), claiming that

certain people care nothing for the truth, but only for the shape of their mouths; so they keep adding to the original words until finally no human being can understand what in the world the word means [...]. And if we are permitted to insert and remove any letters we please in words, it will be perfectly easy to fit any name to anything.

3. Etymologies in Becanus' works6

3.1. Introduction

Leibniz is said to have introduced the term goropiser, ‘to goropize’, to indicate that with (Goropius) Becanus a new trend in etymologizing started, based on insufficient evidence, which resulted in ‘étymologies étranges et souvent ridicules’.7 However, Leibniz thought Becanus was not far from the truth when he claimed that Cimbric8 had more primitive elements in it than Hebrew.

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3.2. Etymological methods used by Becanus

Generally speaking I would say that Becanus followed the implicit rules9 that the ancient Greek philosophers appear to have followed when they tried to account for certain relationships between words: replacement of letters, insertion, deletion and inversion. Becanus differed from these predecessors in his understanding of the languages and their history, and one might say that, once he had decided that Cimbric was the original language, every example he found almost naturally would fit his beliefs.

3.2.1. Insertion and addition of letters

More than a third of Becanus' etymologies fall under this category. It should not come as a surprise that in Becanus' text more examples are found of insertion and addition of letters and syllables than of subtraction, since his basic assumption is that all words have developed from individual letters and monosyllabic words. Insertion or addition of vowels, consonants or syllables is what examples in this category consist of:

aíō (Gr.) ‘to breathe’ < ai (Du.) ‘to breathe’ [H.63]

swart (Du.) ‘black’ < swar (Du.) ‘heavy’ [H.87]

ordo (Lat.) ‘order’ < or (Du.) ‘origin’ [H.45]

3.2.2. Deletion

Only about one sixth of his etymologies fit this category. As is suggested before, the low number here can be accounted for by the fact that Becanus assumed that the original words were monosyllabic. Examples show deletion of vowels and/or consonants or contraction of words:

alb (Du.) ‘clean’ < al ab (Du.) ‘entirely clean’ [H.87]

ius (Lat.) ‘right’ < just (Du.) ‘right’ [H.69]

wer (Du.) ‘to resist’ < weder (Du.) ‘to resist’ [H.78]

3.2.3. Replacement

Another third of the examples I found in this category. It would not be justified, however, to draw conclusions about Becanus' methods based on this number. Often he would give a number of examples when discussing a certain regularity: Dutch w becomes v or q in Latin (e.g. Hermathena 30) generates four examples, and similar examples on the same and the following page make up twelve examples of this category. Most examples show a change in consonants or vowels:

bēr (Gr.) ‘weather’ < weer (Du.) ‘weather’ [H.32]

as (Du.) ‘food’ < at (Du.) ‘(he) ate’ [H.90]

nijt (Du.) ‘envy’ < niet (Du.) ‘nothing’ [H.94]

3.2.4. Inversion

Only a small percentage of Becanus' etymologies can be categorized as inversions, but these complete inversions are different from the inversions one

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usually finds, such as metathesis: the interesting thing to note is not only that Becanus assumed that all words are built up from monosyllabic words, but also that the relationship between a syllable and its opposite can easily be found, in most cases, by turning the syllable around: if Dutch men means ‘ducere’, ‘to lead’, then it cannot be a coincidence that the inverted syllable, Dutch nem, means ‘abducere, abigere’, ‘to lead away, to take away’.

When Becanus used ‘total inversion’ in the etymology of a foreign word, he claimed there was a similar meaning before and after inversion:

ti (Gr.) ‘something’ < iet (Du.) ‘something’ [H.96]

loq- (Lat.) ‘to speak’ < cal (Du.) ‘to chat pleasantly’ [H.78]

Interestingly enough, the etymologies in the Origines Antwerpianae collected by Frederickx contain very few examples of these inversions (‘grab’ - ‘barg’),10 so that this could be seen as a development in Becanus' methods.

4. Becanus and Plato's Cratylus

4.1. Introduction

It is clear from the Hermathena that Becanus had read Plato's works, and he quoted the Cratylus extensively. I will now focus on Becanus' opinion on Plato and the Cratylus, and on Plato's influence on Becanus.

4.2. Becanus' knowledge of Plato

In the Hermathena Becanus mentioned Plato very often, and mostly in connection with the Cratylus dialogue. It is interesting to note that Becanus never quoted Plato directly from Greek, although he does so for many other Greek authors. The conclusion could be drawn that Becanus only had a Latin translation of Plato's Cratylus available when he wrote the Hermathena. Most scholars in the sixteenth century used Ficino's edition, which had the Greek text on the left page, and the Latin translation on the right.

Another possibility is that Becanus wanted to make sure that his point was understood. Generally speaking, he only used Greek to quote poetry.

4.3. Becanus' opinion on the Cratylus

Becanus' interpretation of Plato's Cratylus shows no sign of any controversy. The Cratylus was taken, by Becanus and all other scholars before the nineteenth century, as a dialogue expressing a certain number of truths. Questioning these was simply not done.

Becanus quoted extensively from the Cratylus (sometimes a folio page at a time, e.g. Hermathena 46-47, on the correctness of names shown through the meaning of individual letters), and every time he did so he was very affirmative about Plato's intentions, and he seemed convinced of the correctness of

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his interpretation of Plato's words. Becanus only wanted clearcut opinions from his sources: he did not quote parts with differing views.

4.4. Comparison of the etymological methods

The four rules for etymologizing written down by Lersch are merely the result of his findings after examining the etymologies applied by the Greek philosophers. It would not be right to judge Plato's etymologies on how well they abide by Lersch's rules.

For the sake of his argument Plato made his character Socrates explain what makes it possible to etymologize (e.g. in 393 D-E): the addition or subtraction of letters does not matter, as long as a thing's essence is preserved, and, therefore, the letter expressing that essence should stay in the word after change has taken place.

Becanus' premise was similar, in that he too assumed the basic meaning to be contained in the individual letters. He could not give the same definition of meaning to individual letters as Plato did: his assumption was that Cimbric is the original language, whereas Plato did not go into the question of the oldest language, and he most certainly had never heard of ‘Cimbric’. As a result, a signifies motion for Becanus (Hermathena 78), and togetherness or greatness for Plato (Cratylus 405 C; 427 C).

This difference in underlying premise must also account for the fact that Becanus did not take over or even discuss Plato's etymologies individually. The only time he picked up on Plato's words, at the same time putting together different parts of the dialogue, is when he quoted, one folio long, two passages where Socrates discusses the foreign origin of certain words (Hermathena 32). Plato claimed that kakías is not a Greek word, and Becanus used this to show its Dutch origin: ‘Nos docebimus, Aac bonum esse, et Ca eius contrarium’ [We will show that Aac means ‘good,’ and that Ca is its opposite].

Some words for which the Cratylus gave an etymological explanation can also be found in the Hermathena, but with a different explanation. It could be that Becanus did not read the Cratylus well enough to remember these examples, or that he did not know how to deal with them.

4.4. Conclusion

There is no doubt that Becanus was aware of the ideas expressed in the Cratylus, but it remains unclear to what extent he understood the meaning of these ideas, and what influenced his opinion about the dialogue. He took over some of what he understood were Plato's basic ideas and adapted them to suit his own purpose: to trace all languages back to one original language, Cimbric.

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5. Conclusion

Becanus deserves more attention from historians of linguistics than he has received thus far. Perhaps he made the first steps in the field of comparative historical linguistics. Leibniz is wrong in saying that Becanus did so by introducing wrongly construed etymologies. Long before him Plato used similar arguments.

Becanus seems new in his ideas on the reversibility of syllables: he claimed that many syllables have the opposite meaning when turned around.

Apart from this seemingly new idea I agree with Metcalf11 that ‘like Plato's Cratylus and a long tradition, Becanus believes in a basic natural fit between form and meaning (at least in the original language)’.

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Plato. Cambridge, MA: 1977. [Part IV]
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‘The Indo-European hypothesis in the 16th and 17th centuries.’ D. Hymes (ed.). Studies in the History of Linguistics: Traditions and Paradigms. Bloomington/London: 1974.
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Etymologies in Joannes Goropius Becanus' Hermathena. Lawrence, KS: 1989. Master's thesis University of Kansas.
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