Vowels are the souls of consonants

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And a consonant without a vowel is a body without a soul.

So says Spinoza in his Hebrew Grammar (Compendium grammatices linguæ hebrææ), as published postumously in 1677.

At least, that's sort of what he says.

The tricky part is that he's writing about Hebrew, where the traditional orthography normally represents consonants and not vowels. Spinoza, writing in Latin, uses the terms litera and vocalis, glossed by Lewis & Short as follows:

litera: a letter, a written sign or mark signifying a sound.

vocalis: that utters a voice, sounding, sonorous, speaking, crying, singing, vocal.

We might translate these as "letter" and "voicing", or as "consonant" and "vowel". The difficulty is that because consonants = letters in this context, Spinoza uses litera sometimes to mean one and sometimes to mean the other.

In the translation below, of the first page of his Chapter 1, I'll try to make choices that make sense in context — though maybe it would be better throughout to translate litera as "letter" and vocalis as something like "voicing".

De Literis, & Vocalibus in genere.

On the nature of consonants and vowels

Quoniam linguae cujusque fundamenta literae, & vocales sunt, dicendum ante omnia nobis est, quid apud Hebraeos litera, quidque vocalis sit.

Because consonants and vowels are the basic elements of each language,  we must say before everything what among the Hebrews a consonant & what a vowel is.

Litera est signum motus oris eo loco facti, unde sonus ore editus audiri incipit. 

A consonant  is the sign of a motion of the mouth made in that place where a sound coming from the mouth begins to be heard.

Ex. gr. א‬ significat principium soni in gutture audiri ex ipsius apertura; ב autem principium soni in labiis ex eorum apertura audiri; ג‬ vero in fine linguae, & palati, &c. 

For example, א‬ means the beginning of a sound in the throat to be heard from that opening; ב on the other hand is the beginning of a sound in the lips to be heard from their opening; while ג‬ is in the back of the tongue and palate; etc.

Vocalis est signum indicans certum, & determinatum sonum.

A vowel is a sign indicating a certain and determinate sound. 

Unde intelligimus, vocales apud Hebraeos non esse literas; & ideo apud Hebraeos vocales literarum animae appellantur, & literae sine vocalibus corpora sine anima.

Whence we understand that vowels among the Hebrews are not letters; and therefore among the Hebrews vowels are called the souls of (consonant) letters, and (consonant) letters without vowels are bodies without souls.

Verum, ut differentia literarum, & vocalium clarius intelligatur, explicare ea commodium potest exemplo fistulae digitis ad canendum pulsatae.

Indeed, in order for the differences between consonants & vowels to be more clearly understood, it may be helpful to explain them through the example of a flute struck by the fingers in playing music.

Sonus namque fistulae vocales illius musicae sunt, foramina vero digitis pulsata eus literae.

Vowels are thus the soundings of that musical pipe, while consonants are the placings of the fingers against the holes.

Sed de his satis.

But enough of this.

Here's an image of the page:

Why, you may well ask, am I reading and translating this document?

A couple of days ago, I got a note from Anne Cutler, who is working on a review article about vowels and consonants, and wrote to ask if I owned or could easily get an English translation of Spinoza's grammar:

It occurred to me that there is a nice quote by Spinoza about the V/C difference, in his writings on Hebrew. It occurs in his book that is known in English translation as "Hebrew Grammar" (the original title is in Latin). I can't find it in English or in Dutch on line (and if the original was also written only in Latin, that wouldn't help me). A French version, from a French translation ominously using Abridged in its title, is in one of Jacques Mehler's papers (he told me about the quote, years ago). But I'm reluctant to include a 3-step translation.

I once got a prize named after Spinoza and found a nice sardonic remark of his about language acquisition to use in my acceptance speech. But that remark was in the Ethics (that I own, in English and Dutch). It would be nice to cite him  again but I don't think there's anything on V/C in the Ethics….

I checked Penn's library, which seems to have only translations into Italian and Polish. I couldn't find an English translation on line, but did find the Latin original at the Hathi Trust web site, and so decided to exercise my secondary-school Latin (with some help from Perseus). And I'm glad I did — the bodies-and-souls stuff is nice, but I actually prefer the idea of consonants as flute fingerings and vowels as the anima (breath or soul) that creates the music.

In some ways this is preferable to the alphabetic phoneme metaphor, that sees consonants and vowels as just different-colored beads on the same string.

So yay Spinoza.

Update — the "nice sardonic remark" that Anne quoted in her 1999 Spinoza Prize acceptance speech was from Ethics 4 "De servitute humana seu de affectuum viribus" ("Of Human Bondage, or the Strength of the Emotions"), Propositio XXXIX, which ends:

Fit namque aliquando ut homo tales patiatur mutationes ut non facile eundem illum esse dixerim, ut de quodam hispano poeta narrare audivi qui morbo correptus fuerat et quamvis ex eo convaluerit, mansit tamen præteritæ suæ vitæ tam oblitus ut fabulas et tragœdias quas fecerat suas non crediderit esse et sane pro infante adulto haberi potuisset si vernaculæ etiam linguæ fuisset oblitus. Et si hoc incredibile videtur, quid de infantibus dicemus? Quorum naturam homo provectæ ætatis a sua tam diversam esse credit ut persuaderi non posset se unquam infantem fuisse nisi ex aliis de se conjecturam faceret. Sed ne superstitiosis materiam suppeditem movendi novas quæstiones, malo hæc in medio relinquere.

translated by R.H.M Elwes as follows:

It sometimes happens, that a man undergoes such changes, that I should hardly call him the same. As I have heard tell of a certain Spanish poet, who had been seized with sickness, and though he recovered therefrom yet remained so oblivious of his past life, that he would not believe the plays and tragedies he had written to be his own : indeed, he might have been taken for a grown-up child, if he had also forgotten his native tongue. If this instance seems incredible, what shall we say of infants? A man of ripe age deems their nature so unlike his own, that he can only be persuaded that he too has been an infant by the analogy of other men. However, I prefer to leave such questions undiscussed, lest I should give ground to the superstitious for raising new issues.



  1. AntC said,

    March 30, 2018 @ 4:43 pm

    Nice! You remember more of your Secondary School Latin than I do. This is presumably Medieval Latin, not the Caesar's Gallic Wars variety(?)

    Hebrewists have a habit of downplaying the importance of vowels (Pittman shorthand likewise), so it's good to see Spinoza with a balanced view.

    I half-remember an anecdote about the precocious young Chomsky at the lunch table in MIT with another Hebrewist. They played a game of writing (English) messages with consonants only (or maybe with a dot for 'some vowel'). They were pleased with themselves it didn't impede communication. I remember thinking at the time I heard the anecdote (by when he was famous): this guy needs to go out do some field work with a non-IE/non-semitic language and stop with these armchair pronouncements.

  2. Ambarish Sridharanarayanan said,

    March 30, 2018 @ 5:29 pm

    Tamil's words for consonant and vowel are literally "body-letter" and "soul-letter". And this usage dates back at least to the Tolkappiyam.

    [(myl) Interesting! Spinoza presents the body/soul description as a traditional saying "among the Hebrews" — so I wonder if the metaphor might go back to some ancient third-party source that spread to South Asia as well the Middle East?]

  3. 번하드 said,

    March 30, 2018 @ 7:20 pm

    Korean has
    자음 (子音) "son sound" for consonant,
    모음 (母音) "mother sound" for vowel.
    For German, in elementary school we had Selbstlaut for vowel, Mitlaut vor consonant,
    of which I wonder if those were "backports" or genuine.
    Curious to see what other models of that dichotomy might turn up in the world's other languages:)

  4. Viseguy said,

    March 30, 2018 @ 8:20 pm

    Awesome, indeed. A different sort of LL post on the night that's different from all other nights.

  5. Andy said,

    March 30, 2018 @ 9:14 pm

    @AntC: Spinoza's Latin was pretty much classical, though very plain in style, but he didn't shy away from postclassical words and constructions.

    The comment on Korean usage reminded me of 'matres lectionis' (קְרִיאָה‎ אִמָּהוֹת) -perhaps not quite the same thing, though I'd be very happy if someone could tell me whether the Hebrew term is the original; I couldn't find anything on the origin of either term. ‎

  6. Jonathan Smith said,

    March 30, 2018 @ 10:29 pm

    Nice passage. The modern Chinese terms are something like 'fundamental sound' (元音) for vowel and 'auxiliary sound' (輔音) for consonant. I don't know the deeper history of these terms.

    Another vowel-consonant metaphor (is beads-on-string in part a product of alphabetic writing?) might be shapes vs. edges; shapes fill space and vowels time.

  7. Andy said,

    March 30, 2018 @ 11:16 pm

    I suppose it's worth mentioning that the words for vowels and consonants in European languages and a bit beyond (e.g. Turkish, Coptic) are all calques of the Greek φωνήεντα and σύμφονα and whatnot.

    [(myl) Maybe σύμφωνος or similar rather than σύμφονα ?]

  8. Andy said,

    March 30, 2018 @ 11:17 pm

    In Hebrew and Arabic grammatical traditions, the dichotomy between vowels and consonants seems to be expressed in terms of movement or the lack of (e.g. the Arabic Haraka:t 'movements' ='vowels'). It's easy to see how the development of the metaphor of souls and bodies would be particularly favoured in a language like Hebrew, though, where the consonantal roots require different vocalic patterns to be brought to life as real words.

  9. Margaret Wilson said,

    March 30, 2018 @ 11:32 pm

    At some point I became aware that I think of vowels as water, and consonants as islands. (I'm a synaesthete, which may have something to do with it.)

  10. Maude said,

    March 31, 2018 @ 2:17 am

    The flute analogy is fueling my imagination. It's going to set the stage some fun vocal breathing exercises in my EAL young learner classes.
    The water and islands analogy makes a fantastic drawing project.

  11. Stephen Goranson said,

    March 31, 2018 @ 5:40 am

    According to Naomi Seidman, Faithful Renderings (2006) p. 181, which quotes this Spinoza passage, "the association between the Hebrew vowels and breath, spirit, and soul appears already in the Zohar….."
    "….Such a conception of breath as a crucial aspect of language is also implicit in rabbinic writings; in Onkelos's translation of Genesis 2:7, for instance, the breath of God infuses Adam not only with life but also with the capacity for language…."

  12. Andy said,

    March 31, 2018 @ 6:05 am

    @myl: Lol, hopefully a typo rather than a manifestation of unconscious urges.

  13. Coby Lubliner said,

    March 31, 2018 @ 9:08 am

    Andy: in modern Hebrew likewise the word for vowel means movement —
    תְנוּעָה (t'nu'a) — while the word for consonant is עיצור ('itsur), meaning stop.

  14. Geoff said,

    March 31, 2018 @ 4:19 pm

    I'm afraid the flute analogy doesn't do it for me. Fingering affects the *length* of the 'vocal tract', not the amount of obstruction. The nearest thing to a consonant is the chiff that you make at the onset of the note by tonguing in various ways.

  15. jih said,

    April 1, 2018 @ 7:09 am

    Here is a competing metaphor:
    Et quid est ipse accentus? Ita definitus est: accentus est quasi anima vocis.
    (Pompeius, Commentum Artis Donati)
    "And what is this accent? it is so defined: the accent is almost like the soul of the word"
    So, putting both metaphors together, vowels are the souls of consonants and the accent is the soul of the word.

  16. richard said,

    April 3, 2018 @ 3:17 pm

    @Geoff, however, for hundreds of years, instrument methods books (including Quantz (1752) use the verb "stopping" to indicate producing different pitches–"fingering" is variable, because you can stop the flute to produce the same pitch using different fingerings. So that usage might have also animated (ha ha) Spinoza's metaphor.

  17. Robert said,

    April 3, 2018 @ 7:09 pm

    In modern Dutch, at least, vowels are called klinkers, and consonants are called medeklinkers. It seems clear that medeklinker is a rather literal translation of consonant, but that would mean that "klinker" means "sonant".

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