Franz Philipp Kaulen, S.J. (1827-1907)

was impressed in favor of [ancient] Hebrew by the following facts:

  1. In no other language is there such an intimate relation between nouns and their objects;
  2. the peculiar Hebrew use of three consonants is based upon a variation of the third letter and closely resembles logical definition by proximate genus and specific difference.*

These important phenomena are especially interesting from the viewpoint of the philosophy of language.

—Pohle-Preuss, God the Author of Nature and the Supernatural: A Dogmatic Treatise vol. 3, § "Thesis IV: Our first parents were also endowed with an infused knowledge of natural and supernatural truth"

*For example, "animal" is the genus of "dog" and "man", and "rational" is the specific difference distinguishing the species "man" from other animals. Cf. "classification" in Brody, Boruch A. "Logical Terms, Glossary of." Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Are #1 and #2 true only of Hebrew?

  • 7
    What even is "intimate relation between nouns and their objects"? If you know what was meant in those claims, can you rephrase using scientific terminology?
    – Arfrever
    Aug 7, 2023 at 1:10
  • 3
    I'm not sure expecting a text that describes itself as a "dogmatic treatise" to any standard of scientific accuracy is going to be productive. Regardless, #2 is about as true in any Semitic language as it is in Hebrew as all share the triliteral root structure. Additionally Hebrew has quite a few unconditioned phonological mergers meaning many unconnected roots appear identically in it
    – Tristan
    Aug 7, 2023 at 8:25
  • 5
    This is straightforward linguistic exceptionalism, otherwise called hogwash, as is usually the case when somebody claims that language X has unique feature Y. The first property doesn't make much sense: nouns don't generally have objects in the linguistic sense, and if he means their referent, then that sounds like an acceptance of the just-so story in Genesis of Adam giving everything its right name.
    – Colin Fine
    Aug 7, 2023 at 17:10
  • 1
    @Geremia The term "just-so story" is used of mythological explanations for natural phenomena, along the lines of Rudyard Kipling's "Just So Stories" like "How the Camel Got His Hump". "Is that really how it happened, Dad?" "Just so." Aug 8, 2023 at 3:35
  • 2
    @Geremia, as I said, hogwash
    – Colin Fine
    Aug 8, 2023 at 10:38

2 Answers 2


The first claim sounds kind of meaningless unless we can define what a noun's "object" is. If so, it will probably turn out to be meaningful but false.

For the second one, if we're understanding the claim right, then see Tristan's comment. In synchronic Hebrew, you can't predict much based on subtracting one letter (the third or otherwise) and trying to find a shared semantic base between the others. But diachronically, before the stage that we would call Hebrew (even ancient Hebrew), Tristan reports, it's argued that there were biradical roots that were supplemented by a third to form some of the roots that would later descend into Hebrew, as well as other Semitic languages.

Hebrew does have some very cool features, but they're not unique to Hebrew.

  • 2
    whilst it is true that two roots having identical 1st & 2nd radicals doesn't guarantee related semantics, it is commonly argued that Proto-Afro-Asiatic had biradical roots, and that Proto-Semitic triradical roots were derived from these largely by adding additional radicals (likely originally derivational affixes), duplicating the second radical, or moving the second radical to third position and adding a new "weak" radical (either a w or y). Ofc, there's been a loooot of Semantic shift since then, and Hebrew has several unconditioned phonological mergers so this isn't anything like genuses
    – Tristan
    Aug 7, 2023 at 8:21
  • @Tristan Ah, I see. That's helpful. A third historical consonant, not necessarily a third consonant in the surface order. Aug 7, 2023 at 12:57
  • 2
    Well, it is usually (just not always) the third in order. My main point was that arguing that the triconsonantal roots were originally biconsonantal is fairly mainstream (but not well-proven enough to call a reliable consensus) although still not unique to Hebrew, and far from as "logical" a classification scheme as the quotation in the question makes it out to be
    – Tristan
    Aug 7, 2023 at 13:07
  • @Tristan Amended, hopefully accurately. Aug 7, 2023 at 14:21
  • 1
    @Geremia For "object", it's more a matter of understanding what's meant by this word in linguistics. Here's the Wikipedia article noting that we speak of objects in terms of verbs, not nouns. On the other hand, as Colin noted in his comment, the author may mean "referent": the object with which a noun is associated. In this case, it's still unclear what the author could possibly mean by a noun having an "intimate relationship" with the thing it describes. Aug 12, 2023 at 13:07

A word, first, to address, the “specificity of man distinguishing him from other animals” in the light of the truly awe-inspiring (and truly inspired) Hebrew text of Genesis 2.

In the Mosaic-Catholic tradition, which coincides with but does not depend on Aristotelian hylomorphism – but in fact surpasses it by illuminating it with the light of divine revelation (body and soul being reunified in the Resurrection) – the intimate relationship between soul and body also implies the distinction between that which is a spiritual principle (or “breath of [rational] life[s],” נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים/nišmat ḥayim, in Gen 2:7a) and the soul as merely naturally living (נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה/nêphêš ḥayāh, in Gen 2:7b) and thereby acting through biological processes; in this respect, comparable to the purely natural life animating animals, חיות/ḥayot, so much so that such other animals are in fact also called נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה (in Gen 1:20, and elsewhere), lit. “living throats” (i.e., living through mere natural respiration), while they are not the receptacle of that divine operation described in Gen 2:7a, by which Adam receives a נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים.

A revelation of paramount importance, but which often goes unrecognized, lost in bad translations (all of them, in varying degrees), and covered with the many projections of modern man on a divinely inspired text he is unequipped to begin to understand, coming from and relying upon the standards of the world misguiding him… Said revelation is this, and it is an irrevocable and truly compelling truth, once the glasses of the world’s mindset (cf. Rom 12:2) and its self-crippling scientism have been removed from one’s face: according to Gen 2:7(a&b), the spiritual life of man comes first; he only becomes a נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה afterwards – the very opposite of what the modernist chimera of evolutionistic ‘process theology’ would have people believe in blasphemously seeking to reconcile Sacred Scripture with the evolution mythology of naturalistic modern “science.”

Thus, “the specific difference distinguishing the species 'man' from other animals,” according to the Book of Genesis, is נִשְׁמַת חַיִּים. It is wholly consistent with the specific rationality of man’s immortal soul, intrinsic to his spiritual life.

Now addressing #1 (“In no other language is there such an intimate relation between nouns and their objects”) and likewise doing it in the very light of the breathtaking text of Genesis 2 (the text in which we are nevertheless given the true spiritual breath of the divine life within us, ☺), I would like to simply highlight the following, which hinges on a theory of knowledge I contend belongs to revealed anthropology, through the authoritative enlightening testimony of both Sacred Scripture (starting with the Book of Genesis) and Tradition (the Fathers, the great scholastic commentaries and syntheses, etc.).

When Adam originally and effortlessly names (literally “calls out”/יקרא) the quid-dities (מַה) of the animals brought before his eyes (Gen 2:19), his sinless intellect is apprehending the invisible from what is visible. This apprehension is intellection proper (בִּינָה → הֲבָנָה), i.e., the core function of the intellect (which the Fathers render, with the Greek NT, by νοῦς, the distinctive highest operation of which moves from θεωρία to λογιστικόν) beyond both abstract conceptualization and regular cognition (both of which we all more or less easily experience, unlike the first).

The possessive pronoun here (הוּא, ejus) refers to the quidditative form (or archetype) of each נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה (animae viventis) he (Adam) has the original ability to call by “its name” (שְׁמוֹ/šmo). To emphasize the exact correlation between Adam’s operation of calling each animal/reality by its inner name (ὄνομα in the LXX → St. Maximus the Confessor, speaking of individual types’ archetypes refers to them as λόγοι, re-translating ὄνομα as λόγος) and what the divine Word (in His ars aeterne) has spoken it to actually be, the original Douay adds ipsum in front of est nomen ejus: “the same is its name” (which answers the typical scholastic existence question, an est?, “is there such a thing?,” the answer to which one could also translate simply as: “this is [ipsum est] its name”).

Thus, a careful translation (mine hereafter)

  1. seeking to maintain the Hebraic syntax in English;
  2. to be intelligibly literal; and
  3. conveying the triple polysemy of the word נֶפֶשׁ,

from the last section of the Hebrew text of Gen 2:19:

  • “And all that Adam calls it [-יִקְרָא לוֹ] every living form/soul/throat [נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה], its name [הוּא שְׁמוֹ] that is.”

There is where the “intimate relation between nouns and their objects” correctly pointed out by Franz Philipp Kaulen, S.J., comes from!

Without needing to resort to the deductive exertion of knowledge hard-won after the fall, Adam, the proper scientist and pontiff of Creation, only had to consider the content of what was shown to him by the Blessed Trinity to correlate it, by means of language (preternatural Hebrew), to the imago Dei mirror of his own virginal intellect; and, in so doing, to grasp each shown animal/reality’s inner name or noun (שֵׁם עֶצֶם/ὄνομα), to finally give it its proper rational voice (as a vocalized/נִקרָא name/שֵׁם) in Creation. Indeed, outside of Adam’s word, visible Creation is but a mute display.

As Pascal said (Pensées 201-206): « Le silence éternel de ces espaces infinis m’effraie… » (“The eternal silence of these infinite spaces frightens me…”). Adam/man’s word, echoing the divine Word, is the only voice the universe of sub-rational objects has to be intelligibly reflected in the form of nouns.

As for #2, I would merely point out that a case can certainly be made for the antiquity of some proto-Hebrew and Mosaic Hebrew bi-literal roots “hiding” in tri-literal ones formed at a later stage.

Interestingly, Kaulen also speaks of something akin to “logical definition” in how he explains the phenomenon of moving from one consonantal structure to the other. In Adam’s original state of justice, logic is inherent to his meaning-full use of language. It is built into it as ars cogitandi, the work of the preternatural human intellect mirroring, through the use of names (≡ of quidditative essences) and denotations (semiotics), what may be called the ars dialecticæ divinis (the logical art of divine Creation, the ultimate source of Adam’s certitudinalis cognitionis).

  • Down-voters, please explain your down-votes.
    – Geremia
    Aug 12, 2023 at 3:38
  • 5
    @Geremia This answer is presented in the framework of literary criticism and stylistic philology, and it doesn't really answer the question from a linguistic perspective.
    – Graham H.
    Aug 12, 2023 at 5:06
  • The following is the 1st paragraph of a longer response (sent earlier) I could not fit in this box: --> In this post, it is true that I did not think it as useful to answer “from a linguistic perspective.” However, it is difficult to really look at Scripture’s first sacred language, in the Book of Principles/Genesis, and to not do so first and foremost as an exegete and an epistemologist (rather than a “literary critic and/or a stylistic philologist”) recognizing the revealed status of the sacred text – in its original language, to be certain. Etc. (see the complete version posted on 8/13/23). Aug 13, 2023 at 4:10
  • viewing the revealed status of the text in its original language as certain is incompatible with a scientific investigation of that language - i.e. it is incompatible with a linguistic perspective. If you want your answers to be better received here (in a linguistic environment that aims for that scientific study of language) you will have to set aside that position here
    – Tristan
    Aug 14, 2023 at 9:34
  • Science understood and practiced (well beyond linguistic questions) without constraining it to the pitfalls of scientism cannot contradict revelation. One needs to change one's epistemology to appreciate this. Upflags are of no interest to me. I have taste and interest only for what is true, whether it is deemed "scientific" or not. Aug 25, 2023 at 10:25

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.