Tag Archives: language

Lewis Thomas – Living Language

The following is the 27th essay in Lewis Thomas’s book, Lives of a Cell: Notes of a Biology Watcher, published in 1974.

Living Language

“Stigmergy” is a new word, invented recently by Grasse to explain the nest-building behavior of termites, perhaps generalizable to other complex activities of social animals. The word is made of Greek roots meaning “to incite to work,” and Grasse’s intention was to indicate that it is the product of work itself that provides both the stimulus and instructions for further work. He arrived at this after long observation of the construction of termite nests, which excepting perhaps a man-made city are the most formidable edifices in nature. When you consider the size of an individual termite, photographed standing alongside his nest, he ranks with the New Yorker and shows a better sense of organization than a resident of Los Angeles. Some of the mound nests of Macrotermes bellicosus in Africa measure twelve feet high and a hundred feet across; they contain several millions of termites, and around them are clustered other small and younger mounds, like suburbs.

The interior of the nests are like a three-dimensional maze, intricate arrangements of spiraling galleries, corridors, and arched vaults, ventilated and air-conditioned. There are great caverns for the gardens of fungi on which the termites depend for their nourishment, perhaps also as a source of heat. There is a rounded vaulted chamber for the queen, called the royal cell. The fundamental structural unit, on which the whole design is based, is the arch.

Grasse needed his word in order to account for the ability of such tiny, blind, and relatively brainless animals to erect structures of such vast size and internal complexity. Does each termite possess a fragment of blueprint, or is the whole design, arch by arch, encoded in his DNA? Or does the whole colony have, by virtue of the interconnections of so many small brains, the collective intellectual power of a huge contractor?

Grasse placed a handful of termites in a dish tilled with soil and fecal pellets (these are made of lignin, a sort of micro-lumber) and watched what they did. They did not, in the first place, behave at all like contractors. Nobody stood around in place and gave orders or collected fees; they all simply ran around, picking up pellets at random and dropping them again. Then, by chance, two or three pellets happened to light on top of each other, and this transformed the behavior of everyone. Now they displayed the greatest interest and directed their attention obsessively to the primitive column, adding new pellets
and fragments of earth. After reaching a certain height, the construction stopped unless another column was being formed nearby; in this case the structure changed from a column to an arch, bending off in a smooth curve, the arch was joined, and
the termites then set off to build another.

Building a language may be something like this. One can imagine primitive proto-Indo-‘European men finding themselves clustered together, making random sounds, surrounded, say, by bees, and one of them suddenly saying “bhei,” and then the
rest of them picking it up and repeating “bhei” and thus beginning that part of language, but this is a restricted, too mechanistic view of things. It makes pellets out of phonemes, implies that the deep structures of grammar are made of something like cement. I do not care for this.

More likely, language is simply alive, like an organism. We tell each other this, in fact, when we speak of living languages, and I think we mean something more than an abstract metaphor. We mean alive. Words are the cells of language, moving the great body, on legs.

Language grows and evolves, leaving fossils behind. The individual words are like different species of animals. Mutations occur. Words fuse, and then mate. Hybrid words and wild varieties of compound words are the progeny. Some mixed words are dominated by one parent while the other is recessive. The way a word is used this year is its phenotype, but it has a deeply seated, immutable meaning, often hidden, which is the genotype.

The language of genetics might be used in some such way to describe the genetics of language, if we knew more about both.

The separate languages of the Indo-European family were at one time, perhaps five thousand years ago, maybe much longer, a single language. The separation of the speakers by migrations had effects on language comparable to the speciation observed by Darwin on various islands of Galapagos. Languages became different species, retaining enough resemblance to an original ancestor so that the family resemblance can still be seen. Variation has been maintained by occasional contact between different islands of speakers, and perhaps also by random mutations.

But there is something else about words that gives them the look and feel of living motile beings with minds of their own. This is best experienced by looking them up, preferably in one of the dictionaries that provide all the roots back to the original, hypothetical fossil language of proto-Indo- European, and observing their behavior.

Some words started from Indo-European and swarmed into religion over a very large part of the earth. The word blaghmen, for example, meant priest. It moved into Latin and Middle English as flamen, a pagan word for priest, and into Sanskrit as brahma, then “brahman.” Weld, a word meaning to see, with later connotations of wisdom and wit entered Germanic as witan, and Old English wis to “wisdom.” It became videre in Latin, hence vision.” Finally, in its suffixed form woid-o, it became the Sanskrit word veda.

Beudh traveled a similar distance. With the meaning of awareness, it became beodan in Old English, meaning “bode,” and bodhati in Sanskrit, meaning he awakes, is enlightened, and thus Bodhisattva, and Buddha.

The sattva part of Bodhisattva came from the Indo-European word es, meaning to be, or is, which, on its way into Sanskrit as sat and sant, also became esse in Latin and einai in Greek; einai became the ont in certain words signifying being, such as “symbiont.”

The Indo-European word bhag, meaning to share, turned into the Greek phagein, to eat, and the Old Persian bakhsh (yielding “baksheesh,”) and, in Sanskrit, with the meaning of bhage, good fortune, it emerged as Bhagavadgita (the gita from gei, a song).

The Hari-Krishna people are chanting something closer to English than it sounds. Krishna, the eighth avatar of Vishnu, has his name from the Sanskrit Krsnah, the black one, which came from the Indo- European word for black, kers (which also produced “chernozem,” black topsoil, by the way of the Russian chernyi).

There is obviously no end to this; it can tie up a whole life, and has luckily done lust that during the past century for generations of comparative linguists. Their science began properly in 1786 with the discovery of the similarity of Sanskrit to Greek and Latin, by William Jones. In 1817, with a publication by Franz Bopp, it became recognized that Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Persian, and all the Germanic languages were so closely related to each other that a common ancestor must have existed earlier. Since then, this science has developed in more or less parallel with biology, but more quietly.

It is a field in which the irresponsible amateur can have a continually mystifying sort of fun. Whenever you get the available answer to a straight question, like, say, where does the most famous and worst of the four-letter Anglo-Saxon unprintable words come from, the answer raises new and discomfiting questions. Take that particular word. It comes from peig, a crawling, wicked Indo-European word meaning evil and hostile, the sure makings of a curse. It becomes poikos, then gafaihaz in Germanic and gefah in Old English, signifying “foe.” It turned from poik-yos into faigjaz in Germanic, and faege in Old ‘English, meaning fated to die, leading to “fey.” It went on from fehida in Old English to become “feud,” and fokken in Old Dutch. Somehow, from these beginnings, it transformed itself into one of the most powerful English expletives, meaning something like “Die before your time!” The unspeakable malevolence of the message is now buried deep inside the word, and out on the surface it presents itself as merely an obscenity.

“Leech” is a fascinating word. It is an antique term for physician, and also for the aquatic worm sanguistrgus, used for leeching. The two words appear to be quite separate, but there is something like-biological mimicry going on: leech the doctor means the doctor who uses leech the worm; leech the worm is a symbol for the doctor. Leech the doctor comes from the Indo-European leg, which meant to collect with numerous derivatives meaning to speak. Leg became Germanic Iekjaz, meaning one who speaks magic words, an enchanter, and also laece in Old English, meaning physician. (In Denmark the word for doctor is still laege, in Swedish lakare.) Leg in its senses of gathering, choosing, and speaking gave rise to the Latin legere, and thus words like “lecture” and “legible.” In Greek, it became legein, meaning to gather and to speak; “legal” and “legislator” and other such words derived. Leg was further transformed in Greek to logos, signifying reason.

All this history seems both plausible and creditable, good reading for doctors, but there is always that other leech, the worm.

It is not certain how it came. Somehow it began its descent through the language at the same time as leech the doctor, turning up as both laece and lyce in Old English, always recognizable as something distinctly the worm and at the same time important in medicine. It also took on the meaning of someone parasitic, living on the flesh of others. Gradually, perhaps under the influence of a Middle English AMA, the worm was given sole rights to the word, and the doctor became the doctor, out of dek, meaning to accept, later to teach.

Man is an unchanged word from Indo-European man, meaning just that. But two other important words for man have stranger sources. One is dhghem, meaning earth; this became guman in Germanic, gumen in Old English, then home and humanus in
Latin, from which we have both “human” and “humus.” The other word for man contains the same admonition, but turns the message around. It is wiros, meaning man in Indo-European, taken as weraldh in Germanic and weorold in Old English, emerging, Babbergastingly, as “world.”

This must be a hard science to work in. You might think that with a word for earth giving rise to one important word for man, and an early word for man turning into the word for the world, you would find a parallel development in other words for the earth. Not so: the Indo-European word ers, which later became “earth,” has evolved only one animal that I can find mentioned, and it is the aardvark.

I am glad to have a semi-permeable memory after getting into this. If you had to speak English with running captions in your mind showing all the roots, all the way back to Indo-European, you’d fall off the bicycle. Speaking is an autonomic business; you may search for words as you go along, but they are found for you by agents in your brain over which you exercise no direct control. You really couldn’t be thinking Indo-European at the same time, without going speechless or babbling (from baba, meaning indistinct speech, Russian balalayka, Latin balbus, meaning “booby,” Old French baboue, leading to “baboon,” Greek barbaros, meaning foreign or rude, and Sanskrit babu, meaning father). That sort of thing.

I got into even more trouble while looking into “Stigmergy.” I was looking for other words for Inciting and instigating work, and came upon “to egg on.” The egg here comes from ak, a word for sharp, suffixed to akjo in Germanic, meaning “edge,” and to akjan in Old Norse, meaning “egg,” to incite, goad; the same root moves on into Old English as aehher and ear, for ear of corn. (Corn, if you have a moment, is from greno, for grain, which became korn in Old High German, granum in Latin, and cyrnel in Old English, thence “kernel.”) But neither the egg nor the ear from ak is the real egg or ear. The real egg comes from awi, meaning bird, which turned into avis and ovum in Latin (not known, of course, which came first), into oion in Greek, and was compounded with spek (to see) to form awispek, “watcher of birds” which became auspex in Latin, meaning augur.

The real ear began as ous, then auzan in Germanic, and eare in Old English and auri in Latin; along the way, it was compounded with sleg, meaning slack, and transformed to lagous, meaning “with drooping ears,” which then became lagos, Greek for rabbit.

There is no way to stop, once you’ve started, not even by trying to round a circle. Ous became aus became “auscultation,” which is what leeches (leg) do for a living (leip) unless they are legal (leg) leeches, which, incidentally, is not the same thing as lawyers (legh).

That should be enough (nek, to attain, becoming ganoga in Germanic and genog in Old English, also onkos in Greek, meaning burden, hence “oncology”) to give you the general (gene) idea (weid becoming widesya then idea in Greek). It is easy to lose the thread (from ter, to rub, twist–possibly also the root of termite). Are you there?