Johannes_Goropius_Becanus

Johannes Goropius Becanus

Johannes Goropius Becanus (1519-1572) was a Dutch physician, linguist, and humanist. He was born Jan Gerartsen in the town of Gorp, situated in the municipality of Hilvarenbeek. As was the fashion of the time, Gerartsen adopted a latinized surname based on the name of his birthplace, Goropius being rendered from "Van Gorp"' and Becanus referring to "Hilvarenbeek."

He studied medicine in Leuven, and became physician to two sisters of Charles V: Marie and Eleonore, who were based in Brussels at the time. Philip II, the son of Charles V, wanted him also as his doctor and offered him a rich income. Goropius refused and established himself as medicus (town doctor) of Antwerp in 1554. Here, free of courtly intrigues, Goropius dedicated himself completely to the study of languages.

Goropius dedicated himself to studying antiquity during this time, and became fluent in many languages. Goropius theorized that Antwerpian Flemish, or Brabantic, spoken in the region between the Scheldt and Meuse Rivers, was the original language spoken in Paradise. Goropius believed that the most ancient language on Earth would be the simplest language, and that the simplest language would contain mostly short words. Since the number of short words is higher in Brabantic than it is in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, Goropius reasoned that it was the older language.

A corollary of this theory was that all languages derived ultimately from Brabantic. The Latin word for “oak,” quercus, Goropius derived from werd-cou (“keeps out cold”); the Hebrew name “Noah” he derived from nood (“need”). Goropius also believed that Adam and Eve were Brabantic names (from Hath-Dam, or “dam against hate"; and Eu-Vat, “barrel from which people originated,” or from Eet-Vat, “oath-barrel,” respectively). Another corollary was the placement of the Garden of Eden itself in the Brabant region. In the book known as Hieroglyphica, Goropius also proved to his satisfaction that Egyptian hieroglyphics represented Brabantic.

There is an allusion to this theory in Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, where one character speaks of planks written on by Adam "in High Dutch: which proves it was the original tongue".

In spite of his extensive travels in Italy, Spain, France, Germany and Britain, Goropius remained attached to his homeland, and reported on various curiosities and customs from his native region. In his Origines Antwerpianae (1569), a treatise describing the antiquities of Antwerp, Goropius reports various curiosities, among them that a youth almost nine feet tall and a woman about ten feet tall lived near his home. He also reports that Ters, a deity who seems to have been an equivalent of Priapus, was invoked by Antwerpian women when they were taken by surprise or sudden fear, and that there was a house in Antwerp adjoining the prison that bore a statue which had been furnished with a large worn away phallus.

Goropius died in Maastricht.

Legacy

Christoffel Plantijn had been a friend of Goropius' and the Antwerp-based printing house known as the Plantin Press, which first published Goropius' works in 1569, printed the linguist-physician’s posthumous collected work in 1580 as a massive volume of more than a thousand pages. Goropius' work was met with a mixture of ridicule and admiration. Goropius is considered to have given Dutch linguistics, and Gothic philology in general, a bad name. Though Goropius had admirers (among them Abraham Ortelius and Richard Hakluyt), his etymologies have been considered "linguistic chauvinism," and Leibniz coined the term "goropism" to mean "absurd etymology." Justus Lipsius and Hugo Grotius discounted Goropius’ linguistic theories. "Never have I read greater nonsense," the scholar Joseph Scaliger wrote of Goropius' etymologies.

However, Goropius’ work precedes that of William Jones, the “discoverer” of the Indo-European language family, and though replete with eccentric and ridiculous etymologies, nevertheless can be considered a foundation for the field of historical linguistics.

Sources

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