texts and scripts 2 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 6)

Hi again, everybody!

Many claims regarding Hebrew script (as discussed last time) involve gematria (isopsephia in Greek). This is a form of mystical numerology, applied mainly to the Hebrew scriptures and other sacred Jewish writings – notably those associated with the Kabbalah (see below) – but according to some of pre-scriptural or other extraneous origin (again, see below). Like numerology generally (to be discussed later), gematria is a system of assigning numerical value to a word or phrase, in the belief that words or phrases with identical numerical values bear some relation to each other, or bear some relation to the number itself as it may apply to a person’s age, the calendar year, or the like. The letter-values and calculation methods to be used in gematria vary somewhat across sources.

There is some evidence that versions of gematria existed in ancient Mesopotamian syllabaries. Some authors suggest that gematria was then further developed in Greece. David Fideler argues that the spellings of the names of the Greek gods were formulated according to isopsephic principles, under Pythagorean influence, around 500 BCE (for example, the name Zeus was allegedly formulated so as to express the geometric mean of the names Hermes and Apollo) and that many Greek temples, including the Parthenon (447 BCE), were constructed isopsephically. Although some of these individual claims are dubious or worse, the general notion expounded here agrees with the only known etymology of the word gematria (from Greek geometria, ‘earth-measures’). Other authors have made similar suggestions, notably Karl Menninger, David Diringer and Georges Ifrah. Ifrah notes that the numeric uses of Greek letters date back at least to the end of the fourth century BCE, whereas the oldest known examples of the Hebrew system date only to the last few years of the second century at the earliest.

The classicist Kieren Barry also argues that gematria and the Hebrew Kabbalah itself had their origins in Greek. Barry analyzes the history of Greek ideas regarding links between, on the one hand, the Phoenician abjad and its offshoot the Greek alphabet, and, on the other, the number system, the zodiac, planetary aspects of astrology, planetary astronomy, musical scales, symbolism associated with individual letters, acrostics used in invocations and imprecations, Pythagorean notions about the universe, etc. The idea that gematria has Greek origins (while unwelcome to some Jewish writers) is not prima facie ridiculous. However, some of Barry’s discussion, in particular, is rather approximate and even inaccurate. In addition, he agrees too readily with Joscelyn Godwin in finding significance in the ‘seven vowels’ of Greek.

Kabbalah (variously spelled) is itself a set of esoteric teachings meant to explain the relationship between an eternal and mysterious creator and the mortal and finite universe. Authors who interpret Biblical text in interesting Kabbalistic terms include George Sassoon and Rodney Dale (claiming that Moses ben Shem Tov’s thirteenth-century work Zohar actually describes a machine for making ‘manna’) and Carlo Suarès (proposing a novel and arguably tendentious analysis of Genesis which implies that the names of the twenty-two Hebrew letters of the Hebrew abjad are in fact proper names originally used to designate different states or structures of ‘cosmic energy’). Some writers, such as Lawrence Kushner and Michael Munk, focus upon the alleged special, often mystical attributes or characteristics of some of the individual letters. Compare also the ideas of Leonardi as discussed earlier.

It has never been convincingly argued that gematria or Kabbalah should be regarded as having any empirical validity.

Among special claims involving Kabbalah, Gregg Braden believes that the universe (‘creation’) ‘speaks’ to humanity through a ‘language’ which has been forgotten (over 530,000 relevant documents have been lost) but which can now be re-accessed through advances in the understanding of ‘quantum science’, human DNA, non-physical ‘energies’, and especially Kabbalah; he links the letters of the Hebrew abjad with mystical and other non-linguistic notions (such as chemical elements) in the usual manner. However, Braden’s linguistics appears weak: his account of the Hebrew script is incoherent and mistaken in various ways, he presents a confused typology of writing systems, he confuses script and language (at least terminologically), and he frequently refers to subjective ‘feelings’. In fact, Braden does not attempt serious linguistic analysis of Hebrew or the Hebrew abjad.

A very striking multi-disciplinary proposal is advanced by Stan Tenen, a mathematician who holds that the shapes of number symbols, the shapes of the letters making up the Hebrew abjad and in other guises the Greek and Arabic scripts, and the meanings of the acrophonic Hebrew names of the Hebrew letters all derive from gestures made with the human hand and the (multi-dimensional) symmetries which these allegedly display. Tenen supports this analysis with data of many types, including the communicative behaviour of non-human primates, the use of communicative gestures by pre-linguistic infants and congenitally blind people, findings regarding the origins of cognition more generally, etc. He also believes that his findings have implications for communicating with putative extraterrestrials.

Tenen is sophisticated on various fronts, but some of the claims made here appear at least overstated. For instance, even if Tenen’s account of the Hebrew letter-names were itself correct, this would not enable non-Hebrew-readers to determine the senses of longer words spelled with these letters. Thus, even if the letter corresponding with P, whose name (pe) means ‘mouth’, does represent a hand pointing to a mouth, most longer Hebrew words containing this letter have nothing to do with the word pe or its meaning. Hebrew words cannot be interpreted merely on the basis of knowing (by whatever means) the forms, meanings and alleged origins of the individual letter-names.

Tenen expands his theory into a general account of the evolutionary origins of human language and writing, arguing for instance that the human genetic capabilities underlying reading and writing clearly pre-date the actual invention of written language in its known forms and thus must have developed for other reasons, which he takes to be such as would account for his own gestural theory. Tenen believes that these points relate to the ‘Tower Of Babel’ language-origin myth reported in Genesis. More generally, he implicates Biblical, religious, esoteric and cosmological theories with his central ideas; he has founded the ‘Meru Foundation’ for the purpose of exploring the implications of these ideas.

More next time!


One Response to texts and scripts 2 (non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 6)

  1. marknewbrook says:

    Sorry all, should be Non-historical ‘fringe’ linguistics 7, NOT 6!  Mark

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