Commentary Magazine


Naming-Day in Eden, by Noah Jonathan Jacobs

When Adam Delved . . .
Naming-Day in Eden. The Creation and Recreation of Language.
by Noah Jonathan Jacobs.
Macmillan. 159 pp. $3.95.

 

Naming-Day in Eden has clearly been designed for the man who knows nothing about the science of linguistics; it is a light concoction (a soufflé, according to the publishers) that may be downed whole, incurring no damage to the uninitiated digestive system. But scholar and linguist Noah Jonathan Jacobs has attempted to compress the vast and expanding range of linguistic theorizing into this small volume, which manages at once to be tense and rambling, informative and amusing.

Advocating no explicit position of his own, Dr. Jacobs enlarges eclectically upon the parable in Genesis 2:19-20, Adam’s naming of the animals. The primogenitor was obviously up to something on Naming Day, and his activities are first imagined, and then considered with reference to theories on the origin of language. Dr. Jacobs neglects to mention whose theories they are, feeling perhaps that naming them will confuse the good-natured and unsystematic reader whom he seems to be addressing. Rational, emotive, imitative, and gesture theories pass in review, announced in a tone of homely parable (“Adam was barely one hour old on that fateful fall morning in the springtime of the world. . . .”), and, once thus established, are expanded into fascinating and lively digressions on the vagaries of naming.

The bat is subjected to a typical polyonymous inquiry: “How did Adam name the bat? Which characteristic impressed him at the moment of naming? Did its blindness move him to call it murciélago (Sp.), its baldness chauve-souris (Fr.), its shyness pipistrello (It.), its leathery skin Laderlapp (Dan.) or böregér (Hung., from bör, leather; egér, mouse), its preference for the night nukteris (Gr.), its resemblance to the mouse Fledermaus (Ger.), or letutsaya mysh (Rus.), the sound of its flapping wings watwat (Arab.), its winglike hands chiroptera (Lat. from Gr. chir, hand, plus pteron, wing), its resemblance to a lily (!) liliac (Rum.), its reputed love of bacon bat (OE backe, bacon)?”

As to Kenneth Burke, man, to Dr. Jacobs, is to be defined as a language-using animal whose attitudes and actions are reflected in his language. Speech, the product of the individual, engages in a perpetual struggle with language, the property of society. The dialectic that ensues affects the creation and usage of words and raises the question of whether language functions as the expression of the individual’s private world or as a social institution for communication. Dr. Jacobs’s sympathies seem to lie with society and communication, and we can observe him on occasion answering his own questions, protecting language as communication from the devil, the learned, the lexicographers, and the logicians. By choosing Adam as his starting point, Dr. Jacobs borrows the force and universality of the Biblical parable and applies it to his own notions; the association is not entirely a happy one, for parables, in general, demand to be answered by parables, and Dr. Jacobs’s heuristic parables are not up to the style and quality of the Genesis text. The synopsis of ideas into the parable form is an interesting device, if not entirely successful. We see Adam enjoying the Himalayan air of the Garden, sneezing, and bowing to Eve, merely an actor in the dramatization and elucidation of naming theories. When he writes “Adam,” Dr. Jacobs means “Man” and also writes “Man” once he has made use of the rhetorical Adam to begin his chapters.

The chapter “Names to Conjure With” discusses the virtues and power of the word. True to form, the author first places Adam in a names-to-conjure-with situation by having Adam name the Lord Adonai and describing the Lord as “ordinarily loath to have his name revealed, preferring to appear under pseudonyms.” People also are touchy about revealing their names, for, as in some primitive societies, possession of a person’s name is power over him. Dr. Jacobs, aware of the power of the name, suggests a project for “the student of the contemporary social scene”—a study of “the name changing of immigrants, social climbers and cinema stars.” “This latter group,” he says, “might ponder the Freudian suggestion that it adopt names which lend themselves to erotic or slightly lewd connotations, perhaps names such as Joy, Bottome, Wetmore, Philpot, Bastert, Smalbehynd, and so forth. . . .”

St. Chrysostom was known as The Light and Chrysippus of Tarsus went oddly by the name of The Column of the Portico. “This figure of speech, known as synecdoche,” adds Dr. Jacobs, “is a common form of appellation in the modern underworld, with an expected emphasis on the physical: The Body, The Voice, Legs, Fingers, Greasy Thumb, and so on.” A synecdoche that Dr. Jacobs does not discuss is that of God as The Name; indeed he tends usually to ignore the splendid possibilities for linguistic digression that are in the Bible. The examples that substantiate the initial Adamic parable are drawn from the resources of thirty-six languages, including Algonquian and Swahili, and Dr. Jacobs has compiled a delightful and recondite anthology of naming anecdotes that frequently refers to literature, history, and politics. He is a sesquipedalian (someone, in his definition, who uses long words) and his own language is energetic, displaying a fondness for the obscure or antiquated word: “apricate,” “synecthrous,” “opomnemonysis,” “swink,” “thole,” and “clogdogdo” all appear, leaving the reader without immediate access to the Oxford English Dictionary at somewhat of a loss.

The book, and its ideas, are rather freely and tenuously associated; they rely for continuity on the Genesis text—the event of naming. Where Dr. Jacobs himself seems to end up is in the Sapir-Whorf theory of language (which he does not mention): that language is the reflection of culture and should be studied as a branch of social anthropology. Sapir calls language “the symbolic guide to culture,” and Jacobs echoes him with such statements as: “Each language creates its own patterns through which it interprets the world and incorporates different aspects of existence in its grammar,” and “Human speech, being a reflection of national temperament, is the ideal expression of a people’s character which can be discovered in the morphology and syntax of the language it speaks.”

At the present time, when philosophy and anthropology, as well as literature, are concentrating upon language, an awareness of its importance and function is valuable, even necessary. Dr. Jacobs’s book provides this awareness without becoming involved in the entanglements and controversies of linguistic theory.

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