Re: Celtic & Afro-Asiatic languages

From: the recent past
Message: 2547
Date: 2000-05-26

Dennis Poulter posted yesterday:

<So, what is going on here? We now seem to have Semitic
contact/influence/borrowings in Basque, Celtic, Germanic,
Greek, NE Caucasian, Kartvelian, Etruscan. Could it be that
there is a Semitic substratum throughout western and southern
Europe, right up to the Pontic region?>

Here's hoping it is not too offbeat for a lurker who can
only be an appreciative audience for most of this list's
discussions to note that the hypothetical question in
Dennis's post is a subtextual lemma in Ulysses by James
Joyce. The conceit is that one day in Dublin contains all
days before it, and that the residue of the past is very
much present the language(s) by which we think and
speak. Joyce pushed this subtext into the primary text
of his next and last work, Finnegans Wake, where
many of the words in the book are neologisms formed
from several words which are associated by sound,
cognancy, history, humour, Freudian slippage, the
interweaving on quasi separate themes, something
the author stepped in earlier, malapropisms, etc,
and moreover, are drawn from a pool of languages
whose extent is unknown (I recently uncovered two
words of Galician not recognized in the standard
book of annotations for the Wake) which form a woof
to the warp of standard received English and its slang
and myriad dialects.

In Ulysses, the primary eye-character is a Dublin Jew
of Hungarian ancestry who is married to a Celto-Iberian
woman who is from Gibraltar, the western hinge of Africa
and Europe (just as the Levant, from where at some point
her husband's ancestors issued, is the eastern hinge of
of those same two continents). This couple, Leopold and
Molly Bloom, are thus the personification, in a sense, of
linguistic elements which the author considered as distilled
into and out of the more educated Greek>Latin>French>
English spoken by his third main character, Stephen Dedalus
(most obviously a Greek name, not a Celtic or English one).

This is not the venue to go into how the author uses all
this to motivate his novel. It does, however, seem somewhat
germane to the query-like observation by Dennis re/possible
Semitic substrata in the languages of the more earlier
"tamed" areas of Europe. Joyce certainly seemed entranced
with the idea, with either inspiration or encouragement from
Giambattista Vico, who claimed in his Scienza nuova that
Hebrew was the first language, a prototype from which all
other languages devolved. Vico and Joyce pressed this idea
into the service of their philosophy and art, respectively, but
both were also linguistic obsessives who made considerable
and methodical inroads into their variotous madnesses. They
were certainly cranks, but cranks of the first order, and might
at least be worth dangling about somewhere a discussion of
Semitic footprints in non-Semitic languages.

As Joyce himself puts it, after an explosive sprinkling of
proto-Canaanite alphabetics forming one of his unique
paragraphs of Druidic Qabalism, <And you have it, old Sem,
pat as ah be seated!> [Finnegans Wake 249.17-18] which
I assume can be read on one level as, "Well, there it is:
Old Semitic, as clear as ABC."

For those who want to let the thing run through their fingers
a little more, below is the whole paragraph. Even I can see
the string of references to the NW Semitic alphabet names
followed by the reference to the three forms of <peh> in
Hebrew. Some of the paragraph contains, I think, broader
references to things phonic/phonetic with a Semitic application
running underneath -- <house of breathings>, for example, is
the oral/pharyngeal theatre of speech, followed quickly by
<all fairness> which can be read " 'alef airness," alluding
to the glottal stop as the doorway to the rest of the alphabet
(that is, 'alef as described in the Sefer Yetzirah as the mother
of all the other characters/sounds/archetypes of the
alphabet, ie, those requiring the passage of air as an integral
component of their manifestation [or more Joyceanly, their

<In the house of breathings lies that word, all fairness. The walls
are of rubinen and the glittergates of elfinbone. The roof herof is
of massicious jasper and a canopy of Tyrian awning rises and
still descends to it. A grape cluster of lights hangs therebeneath
and all the house is filled with the breathings of her fairness, the
fairness of fondance and the fairness of milk and rhubarb and the
fairness of roasted meats and uniomargrits and the fairness of
promise with consonantia and avowals. There lies her word, you
reder! The height herup exalts it and the lowness her down aba-
seth it. It vibroverberates upon the tegmen and prosplodes from
pomoeria. A window, a hedge, a prong, a hand, an eye, a sign, a
head and keep your other augur on her paypaypay. And you have
it, old Sem, pat as ah be seated! And Sunny, my gander, he's
coming to land her. The boy which she now adores. She dores.
Oh backed von dem zug! Make weg for their tug!>
[Finnegans Wake 249.06-20]

"The glottal stops here!"

Yours, in her grace's watch, the
Riverend Sterling