Sunday 15 January 2023

On the origin of words

The prevailing theories of historical linguistics are phonocentric. Most scholars consider speech inherently superior to, or more primary than, written language. Spoken language is regarded as a socio-biological character of mankind that evolved and developed spontaneously long before writing. Accordingly, the letters are only graphical representations of spoken sounds. The words are letters assembled solely to reproduce a phonetic signifier chosen for a signified object (including abstract concepts, actions, etc.). The choice of a phonetic sign for an object is said to be 'arbitrary' or 'conventional' (Saussure & Baskin, 1959). A typical example of a phonocentric methodology is the reconstruction of a hypothetical Proto-Indo-European (PIE) language (or other proto-languages) from which modern languages supposedly descend (Mallory & Adams, 2006). Theorists consider the attested phonetic evolution (always deduced with phonocentrism in mind) but generally neglect any simultaneous semantic development that may have occurred during millennia. Instead of following the direction of the natural process, i.e., one that starts from attested ancient roots and finishes with modern cognates, we invent unattested ancient roots starting from presumed meanings of presumed cognates. We understand classical poets and their myths projecting our current perceptions and ideas onto their words.

The PIE theory is based on the hypothesis that languages have a common ancestor. Reconstruction of this common ancestor does not constitute proof that languages have a common ancestor. That would be a fallacy of circular reasoning. The phonocentric PIE model is an analogy of genetics but not a good analogy. Genes and genomes are transmitted vertically, from generation to generation, and cannot be created de novo. Words and languages are transmitted only horizontally, from individual to individual, from society to society. Anyone can create them at any place and time. The PIE theory remains hypothetical. An alternative hypothesis is that languages are multifocal, like towns. They are designed like other technological products using signs and radiate by social contact in no time.

The phonocentric way of thinking leads to an impasse. That speech existed before writing is an unfalsifiable hypothesis because, obviously, there are no ancient speech records. Spoken languages without writing exist today but are extremely limited in structure and function. They have nothing to do with civilisation, as we define it, and can be explained as remains of once-written languages. The notion of arbitrariness of linguistic signs bespeaks the difficulty of explaining the name of an object in phonetic terms. It is also incapable of generating testable predictions for validation. In practice, 'arbitrary' means random, unknowable, inexplicable, or metaphysical. For example, Proto-Indo-Europeans (PIEs) called the water *wódr because they liked it, so it happened! There can be no scientific demonstration of the relation between the sound of *wódr, and the actual object, the water, whatever 'water' may mean. There is no prediction as to what form of water *wódr referred to or why the ancients chose this name against all other possibilities. Without scientific predictability and discrimination, etymological propositions for the same word accumulate. In the best case, the derived root depends on the set of cognates taken at the start. Scientific-like hypotheses differ from folk etymologies only in terms of complexity, likelihood, or elegance but are just as speculative and subjective.

There is a radically new proposition about language. At least in Greek and English, all words are iconic. Based on this hypothesis, we can analyse Ancient Greek names and understand, at last, the hidden meaning of Ancient Greek myths and epic poetry. The theory consists of the following principles.

Graphemes (letters) are iconic. They lend their form as elementary pictograms. A circle primarily means a circle, a straight line is a straight line, A is an angular object half-closed, half-open, W is a wave-like zigzag, M is like a mountain skyline, and so on. Letters are viewed as combinations of sub-literal elements (strokes) I = |, H = |-|, N = /\/, M = /\/\, P = ), ‘ = (, archaic Gamma = >, archaic Lambda = <, K = |<, X = ><, E = <-, etc. I call this principle ichnography[1]. All Archaic and Classical Greek letters have their exact counterparts in Cretan hieroglyphics (Godart & Olivier, 1996) and Linear A signs (Salgarella & Castellan, 2021), ultimately traced to Neolithic Balkan and Armenian signs from the 8th millennium BC on, which are mostly considered pictograms (Facorellis et al., 2014The Inventory of the Danube Script (DS), n.d.Vahanyan & Vahanyan, 2009).

Consequently, graphemes carry meaning associated with their form. They can be used in the names of objects (signifiers) to specify some morphological, structural, or functional characteristics of the named objects (signified). The meanings of a letter can be deduced by the minimal semantic pairing of words that differ only by that letter. For example, the Homeric ἰός (ios; IOS) means dart, and ἤιος (ēiosHIOS) means far-darting; therefore, H means far, at least in this context. Once the sememes behind each letter are thus identified and validated in other contexts, we can apply semantic reading on untranslated words from ancient texts currently taken as proper names (theonyms, toponyms, personal names, heroes, mythological objects, etc.). In Semitic languages, O is called 'ayin (eye) because the eye is the only visible, truly circular object in the human body that everybody is aware of; it can, therefore, serve as a prototype of a circle. We can trace semantic oppositions between letters. I/O for open/closed (line), I/A for narrow/wide, I/H for long/thick, I/Y for up/down, N/M for movement/up-down movement, Z/S, >/< (G/L), q/p, q/b, q/d, b/p; b/d, P/R, I-I/I< (H/K), ></|< (X/K), M/W, etc. Unlike the common belief, all the Greek letter names mean something in Greek, which exemplifies their primary meaning.

Letter duplication denotes multiplicity, intensity, duration, length, or repetition. Typically, in English, a hammer is a tool that repeatedly moves up and down and requires effort (instinctive /mmm.../). Some graphemes represent duplication or extension of other graphemes, U (V) / UU (W), I/H, /Z, O/Ω. In Greek, double graphemes do not duplicate further. One form of duplication is the aspiration, which is suggested by adding the grapheme for length, H. Aspiration differs from duplication as the continuous differs from the discrete. Digraphs, diphthongs, and diacritics are analogous to Egyptian hieroglyphic determinants. An adjacent letter, or a diacritic, specifies the meaning of a letter.

Inversion of letter sequences is used to create antonyms. If BU is the interior of a B-object, i.e., the space occupied by the object, UB is its exterior, its negative space. A letter cluster, represented here by numbers 1-2-3, is frequently an antonym of the inverse cluster, 3-2-1. A different type of antonymy is created when clusters move from the beginning toward the middle or the end of words. Cluster 12 has different meanings in 123456, 341256, or 345612. One of the most spectacular examples is the French words niquer (pattern: 123456; to nick) and requin (653421; shark). The animal opens its mouth and allows its prey (victim) to get in. The hollow object (qu) with a hole is the beneficiary. We find the stem in at the end of the term requinNiquer means to open a hole in an object by impact. The hollow object with a hole here is the victim. The cluster moves to the front and is inversed. Palindromic or otherwise symmetrical words are made for symmetrical objects.

Words are formed by simple agglutination of semantic units (123 + 456 = 123456) or, more sophisticatedly, by running semantics: 123456 = 123 + 234 + 345 + 456. Following this model, Homer (Ὅμηρος'omēros; 'OMHROS) is not a person but an educational subject matter: writing. The stem 'om initiates words meaning to unite (ὁμόω'om), put together, along with, close to, at the same place, (ὁμοῦ'omoy), alike, likewise, like, equally with (ὁμῶς'omōs). The stem 'omē exists as an independent word, ὁμῆ, meaning common, joint, united, with a sense of articulation. Continuing rightwards, we read mēr for thigh bones, legs (μηρίαmēria), furl, wind up, weave, twine (μηρύομαιmēryomai), cord, line, string (μήρινθοςmērinthos), that which is drawn out, strand, a coil or trail (μήρυμα (mēryma). Finally, ēr is found in ἦρα (ēra), marking summarisation, expansion, or realisation of previous thought. The ending -os is an extremely common morpheme meaning the thing which.

Thus, 'omēros (Homer) is the thing (-os) about putting together, joining, articulating similar elements, weaving, furling, and twining them into a string to summarise, expand, or realise previous ideas. This is linguistic composition. The central H of 'OMHROS (perceived as 'OM|-|ROS) represents a bond between linguistic elements. We know that 'omēros is about writing because inverse reading produces the stem rēm (inversion of mēr), which is about speech. It forms the words ῥῆμα (rēma), that which is said or spoken, saying, phrase, subject of speech, verb, and ῥήμων (rēmōn), public speaker, one who gives sentence, judge, advocate, teacher of eloquence, rhetorician. It is unlikely that a person named Homer became famous for doing exactly what 'his' name meant. The name or title was more likely applied a posteriori to describe the work's subject matter.

Even the ros of 'omēros is informative. It only starts one attested Ancient Greek word, ῥοσᾶτον (rosaton), glossed as equivalent to Latin rosatum, containing or made of roses, perhaps, like a rose. The current phonocentric etymologies of rose and its cognates are complex and built upon several untestable hypotheses[2]. Yet, they do not explain what rose primarily means and why the flower was called so. At a sole glance, a rose (Fig. 1A) displays its characteristic 123+234+… pattern of its overlapping petals. Another independent English word using ros is rosary (Fig. 2B). Here, we see the articulation of units. Fuller genuine cognates of Homer ('omēros; 'OMHROS) and of its Doric version Homar ('omaros; 'OMAROS), where H is typically converted to A, are the cognates of French homard, for lobster (Fig. 3C). The animals of this family are characterised by their articulate carapace.

Figure 1A: A rose (flower). Artwork by Peggy Greb (USDA-ARS)B: Rosary beads. Artwork by anonymousCNephropsis rosea (pictured) and similar lobsters of the genus Homarus are known in French as homard. They belong to the subphylum Crustacea. Artwork by SEFSC Pascagoula Laboratory; Collection of Brandi Noble, NOAA/NMFS/SEFSC. All images are marked as public domain.

The consequences of this graphocentric theory of language are tremendous. The usual theological interpretation of ancient texts has long impaired our understanding. If Homer does mean linguistic composition and word-making, we should re-interpret every hero of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The Iliad is about exact measurement, market rules, offer and demand, fixing the right price, and the 'war' between producers, distributors, and consumers. The Odyssey is about the various uses of tap water (other than drinking) before it disappears in the flush toilet (Ithaca). Both works were written from scratch as textbooks. This massive crossword-like exercise could not have been composed without alphabetic writing and could not have existed in oral (Perry, 1933) before it.


Homer = linguistic articulation, written composition, word-making

H = far, length, elongation


Homer: rose, rosary, genus Homarus, French homard, Crustacea




Facorellis, Y., Sofronidou, M., & Hourmouziadis, G. (2014). Radiocarbon Dating of the Neolithic Lakeside Settlement of Dispilio, Kastoria, Northern Greece. Radiocarbon56(2), 511–528.

Godart, L., & Olivier, J.-P. (1996). Corpus Hieroglyphicarum Inscriptionum Cretae. In Études crétoises (Vol. 31). École française d’Athènes.

Mallory, J. P., & Adams, D. Q. (2006). The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World. Oxford University Press.

Parry, Milman. 1933. “Whole Formulaic Verses in Greek and Southslavic Heroic Song.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 64: 179.

Salgarella, E., & Castellan, S. (2021). SigLA: The Signs of Linear~A. A~Palæographical Database. Grapholinguistics in the 21st Century, Part II5, 945–962.

Saussure, F. de, & Baskin, W. (1959). Course in General Linguistics (Charles Bally & Albert Sechehaye, Eds.). The Philosophical Library, Inc.

The Inventory of the Danube Script (DS). (n.d.). Retrieved 20 February 2022.

Vahanyan, G., & Vahanyan, V. (2009). The Intercultural relations between Old Europe and Old Armenia. Papers, XXIII Valcamonica Symposium, Prehistoric and Tribal Art: Making History of Prehistory, the Role of Rock Art, 357–362.

[1] 'Ichnography' (Gr. τὸ ἴχνος, íchnos, 'track, trace' and γράφειν, graphein, 'to write'), pronounced ikh-nog-rəfi, in architecture, is a term defined by Vitruvius (i.2) as the ground plan of the work, i.e., the geometrical projection or horizontal section representing the plan of any building, taken at such a level as to show the outer walls, with the doorways, windows, fireplaces, etc., and the correct thickness of the walls; the position of piers, columns or pilasters, courtyards and other features which constitute the design, as to scale.

[2] Rose in the Online Etymology Dictionary and Wiktionary. Accessed 20 February 2022.