“If we…employ the words in a manner that manifests their integrity, they will at least lend the luster of their wholeness to the phenomena they denote.”
– Jean Gebser
Back in early 2017, I was working on a paper about Ik etymology called “Metathesis in the making of Ik etyma.” I was super proud of the project, even though I eventually abandoned it after a journal recommended changes I didn’t have the energy to actuate at the time. What I had discovered over a couple of years of lexicological research was that there were these ghostlike word-forms that no longer existed on their own in present-day Ik but were still discernible in their living lexical descendants. That is, I found numerous clusters of synonyms or near-synonyms that bore an obvious formal relationship to each other (consonants, vowels, tones, etc.) and had clearly mutated not only in meaning but also in sound-shape. One mutation – called metathesis – involved the word flipping itself from head to toe and then resuming other kinds of change. This phenomenon is not new, obviously – it’s a mainstay in linguistic science – but it was the depth that surprised me. I felt as if I was able to put my ear to the well of language prehistory and hear the faint whispers of the ancestors of living Ikian words spoken today. I called these lexical ancestors archetypal lexemes or archilexes for short. It was in the context of writing this paper that the following quote from Jean Gebser’s book The ever-present origin (1985) resonated so beautifully:
Just as every person represents and lives the entire mutational sequence of mankind through their structures, so too each word reflects its mutational exfoliation within language itself…the original meaning is still luminous throughout the unfolding changes of meaning taken on or attributed over the years. Every word, after all, is not only a concept…but also an image and thus mythical, a sound and thus magical, a root and thus archaic, and thus by virtue of this root meaning, still present from this origin…If we remain cognizant of this origin and employ the words in a manner that manifests their integrity, they will at least lend the luster of their wholeness to those phenomena which they denote. Then, too, our sense of hearing, our heart, and our mind must be equally awake.