The reception of Hebrew in sixteenth-century Europe
The impact of the Cabbala
The main thesis of this article is that a species of general linguistics arose in 16th-century western Europe as a result of the impact of Hebrew studies. Two features of traditional Hebrew grammatical practice produced this, effect: (1) the phonetic classification of consonants by point of articulation, and (2) the analysis of words in terms of roots and affixes. Two works from the early 16th century are cited at some length: a treatise on the pronunciation of Latin, Greek, and Hebrew by the great Spanish humanist Antonio de Nebrija (De vi ac potestate litterarum), which first appeared in Salamanca in 1503; and Johannes Reuchlin’s Hebrew grammar, printed in Pforzheim in 1506. Nebrija exemplifies the impact of Hebrew phonetic theory, while Reuchlin expounds the traditional Hebrew morphological analysis, in the course of which he introduces the novel concept of the root. Moreover, in his treatment of Hebrew orthography he describes the sounds of the language both auditorily and physiologically.
In the second part of the article, the subsequent influence of Hebrew grammatical and linguistic notions is discussed. Reference is made to a work by the French orientalist Guillaume Postel (De originibus), in which the author contrasts the Semitic languages with the two classical languages typologically, calling the former ‘natural’ and the latter ‘grammatical’. There then follows an analysis of a work by the Swiss Hebraist Theodor Bibliander (De ratione communi omnium linguarum), in which the suggestion is made that all languages can be grammatically analysed in a uniform fashion utilizing the Hebrew descriptive framework and then compared with one another. The acquaintance with Semitic languages also introduced Christian scholars for the first time to a paradigm case of a family of related languages. Thus, we see the tentative adumbrations in the 16th century of both typological and genetic classification.
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