The Realm of Language

“Mythology, which was the bane of the ancient world, is in truth a disease of language. A mythe means a word, but a word which, from being a name or an attribute, has been allowed to assume a more substantial existence. Most of the Greek, the Roman, the Indian, and other heathen gods are nothing but poetical names, which were gradually allowed to assume a divine personality never contemplated by their original inventors. Eos was a name of the dawn before she became a goddess, the wife of Tithonos, or the dying day. Fatum, or fate, meant originally what had been spoken; and before Fate became a power, even greater than Jupiter, it meant that which had once been spoken by Jupiter, and could never be changed — not even by Jupiter himself. Zeus originally meant the bright heaven, in Sanskrit Dyaus; and many of the stories told of him as the supreme god, had a meaning only as told originally of the bright heaven, whose rays, like golden rain, descend on the lap of the earth, the Danae of old, kept by her father in the dark prison of winter. No one doubts that Luna was simply a name of the moon; but so was likewise Lucina, both derived from lucere, to shine. Hecate, too, was an old name of the moon, the feminine of Hehatos and Eehatebolos, the far-darting sun; and Pyrrha, the Eve of the Greeks, was nothing but a name of the red earth, and in particular of Thessaly. This mythological disease, though less virulent in modem languages, is by no means extinct.

During the middle ages the controversy between Nominalism and Realism, which agitated the church for centuries, and finally prepared the way for the Reformation, was again, as its very name shows, a controversy on names, on the nature of language, and on the relation of words to our conceptions on one side, and to the realities of the outer world on the other. Men were called heretics for believing that words such as justice or truth expressed only conceptions of our mind, not real things walking about in broad daylight.”

Max Muller, Lectures on the Science of Language, 1864.