The Muse

The sheer variety of symbols and artefacts in use across the ages and geographies does not necessarily point to a multitude of assumptions and values from which they spring. The study of mythology and folklore then, is a reverse approach to anthropology. This blog is dedicated to my favourite symbols, tales and artefacts - both ancient and contemporary.

Friday, October 16, 2009

It's only words... Part I - Etymology

E PLVRIBVS VNNVM - one, among many. This is one of the two inscriptions on the Great Seal of The United States of America. বিবিধের মাঝে আছে মিলন মহান - among the various, exists this great union. This is a lyric from a Bengali patriotic song, referring to what is technically known as The Union of India or The Indian Union.

There cannot be union without communication. But what happens when the means to communicate becomes the instrument of diversification?

The parable of the tower of Babel tells us of such consequences. In a nutshell, the story goes like this:
Ages and ages ago, the twelve tribes of Israel decided to pool in their technological expertise and build a tower that would take them straight to heaven. Infuriated by this arrogant intent, God created a multitude of languages, making communication between the tribes effectively impossible. Since the tribes couldn't understand each other, they couldn't coordinate and build the tower, and their ambitious plans were laid to waste.

Biblical parables aside, the languages of the world, while being distinct, are definitely not distant. Shown below is a graphic taken from my sister's project

Copyright Aritri Roy

This brings us to another branch of knowledge that is closely related to mythology - we call it etymology - the study of words and their origins.

I'm inclined to quote Prof. Srinivasan, our OB-II prof here - that a language is more than a sum of its grammatical syntax and vocabulary. A foreign speaker, who's an expert on a language can be easily differentiated from a native speaker, because the former would not have the body language, the slang or the attitude of the latter. All this simply because he wasn't brought up in that culture.

Etymology however focuses only on the vocabulary of languages, and can give valuable insights into the history and the mindsets of the speakers of the languages. But again, there is also a matter of perception.

Take for example the words for left - sinistra in Latin and gauche in French. It is clear that they're the origins of the English words sinister and gauche, both with very negative meanings. Dan Brown related the fact that the left side has traditionally been associated with the 'Feminine Principle', to the prevalent male chauvinism of the Dark Ages and thus explained the etymology of these words.

While this theory is plausible, I draw your attention to another very gender-neutral explanation to the same phenomenon. Do you think it is a coincidence that left handed people make only 25% of the human population? Before you point out that left-handedness is a recessive trait, let me assure you that it's not the cause for the actual demographics.

Maybe, just maybe the low survival rates of left-handed people caused a stigma to be attached to the phenomenon of left-handedness, and anything related to the left side. Hence the origins.

The point in mind was that etymology, like mythology, has tremendous powers of revelation, if used carefully. With this short piece, I leave you to ponder on the true meaning of 'It's only words...'

... to be continued

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