A Botany of Words

Wisdom Trail Lantau HK. Photograph by Michael McDonough.

by Michael Marder

APRIL 07, 2015

I wonder whether one day we could muster courage and creativity enough to pursue a “natural history of words” (not to be confused with Vico’s or Condillac’s “natural history of grammar”). As I imagine it, this discipline would study how semantic units germinate, undergo metamorphosis, grow, flourish, and decay within and between diverse cultures. Even better would be a botany of words that would finally descend to the literal roots of semantics, the theory of meaning that borrows its name from the Greek sema—“sign” or “seed”. And that is not even to mention the role of roots in grammar, among other botanically inflected terms! Vegetal processes would not play the role of metaphors for the words’ formation, cross-referencing, or falling out of use, but would be recognized for what they are: the first principles of growth and decay in all spheres of life, including the life of culture.

Before dreaming about a botany of words, we must clarify one basic misconception, namely that the word plant is totally transparent, points to an obvious referent, and has an exact equivalent in languages such as Greek and German, Hebrew and Euskera (Basque). Obviously, this word would be everywhere implicated in the botany of words, so much so that it would displace or supplant “God” and “Being” in traditional semiology and hermeneutics. That is why the question about its meanings is unavoidable.

When we say “plant,” we immediately affiliate our speech and understanding with the Latin tradition. The word recalls, through the noun planta (still preserved in the same form in Spanish and Portuguese), the verb plantāre that means “to drive in with one’s feet, to push into the ground with one’s feet,” hinting at that other sense of planta, intimately tied to our bodies—“the sole of a foot” (cf. Barnhart’s Dictionary of Etymology). A mindboggling number of assumptions about plants and our comportment toward them are built into this etymology. Some of the tacit suppositions it underwrites are the following: 1) the soil needs to be leveled and made flat before planting can begin; 2) the root is equivalent to feet, by which plants are driven into the ground; 3) plants are imprisoned in the ground, wherein they are tethered; 4) plants are passive; 5) plants are, in the first instance, the vegetation that is planted, that is, tamed, domesticated, agriculturally produced, driven into a leveled terrain by human beings; 6) plants are lowly beings, and therefore 7) ought to be subjugated, kept underfoot where they belong; 8) we, too, are articulated with plants by means of the lowest part of the human body (considered in terms of its physical configuration), the part that is in direct contact with the earth…

Many European languages have maintained the Latin heritage intact, from the German Pflanz to the French plante and Italian pianta. So static is the entity it signifies that, in English circa 1789, the same word came to denote a factory, the installation of fixed machinery and buildings for industrial production. Shouldn’t we turn to other linguistic realities in an attempt to liberate our minds from the presuppositions attached to “plant”?—you might ask. Beware: some of these efforts may misfire. In Japanese, for instance, vegetation is shokubutsu (植物), related to grass in the form of straw or hay. Now, that is hardly an improvement! But in Greek we encounter the word phuton (φυτόν: literally, “that which has grown”), derived from phuō (φύω), “to grow,” “to come into being,” “to spring forth,” “to produce.” Curiously, on this point, there is complete agreement between Athens and Jerusalem: in Hebrew, “plant” is tzemakh (צמח), from litzmoakh (לצמוח), “to grow”. And even in Russian, thanks to the ties that link it to Greek, the plant is rasteniye (растение), stemming from the verb rasti (расти), which means—you’ve guessed it!—“to grow.”

I do not intend, with this cursory list, to persuade readers about the necessity of reviving the discipline of philology—least of all, in its traditional and “dry” variation—for the sake of giving shape to the botany of words. I only want to suggest that the different terms for vegetation are steeped in divergent tendencies of experiencing plants, even as the linguistic realities themselves privilege certain modes of treating plants over others. Are we to let them grow, cultivating their own propensity for emergence and self-production, or drive them into the ground and keep them at bay? And what if the word for “plant” is absent? That, as a matter of fact, was the case in Euskera (Basque language, which does not belong to the group of Indo-European languages) before its speakers adopted the designation landare from the Latin-based plantāre. According to the explanation I received from my Basque colleagues, Euskera put at the disposal of its speakers names for particular plants (a birch, an oak, peas, wheat…) without generalizing them under an abstract heading, a higher class. Perhaps, the distance from the vegetal world was insufficient to transform it into an object—above all, in and through language—set over and against the human subject. Whatever the explanation, such a level of singularity is virtually inaccessible to our modern sensibilities; at the limit, we can only get an inkling of it with the help of ethical categories and precepts.

Where does this leave the possible botany of words I have conjured up in the opening lines? The Latin baggage of our languages fixes words and plants alike in rigid tables and systems of classification. Together with and in analogy to plants, words are driven into the ground with the soles of our feet, as a result of our obsession with secure and immutable foundations for knowledge. Indeed, to the extent that they are replaced with scientific or numerical notations, they become superfluous, are completely interred in the rock-hard soil of mathematical understanding and denied a chance of germination. We sorely need a botany of words that discerns in plants and in words growing beings, free to spring forth, to flourish, to produce an entire world. In short, a botany of words that, at the extreme, lacking the word for a plant and for a word, acknowledges the inimitable singularity of each. “And only then will words of praise arise, like flowers.”[1]

[1] Friedrich Hölderlin, Poems of Friedrich Hölderlin, selected and translated by James Mitchell (San Francisco: Ithuriel’s Spear, 2004), p. 11.

3 thoughts on “A Botany of Words

  1. If you read Plato’s Phaedrus , find his critique of books as opposed to conversation (dialogue/dialectic). Socrates prefers the latter and talks about such oral exchange as planting a seed which grows in and through the exchange of conversants. He cautions young Phaedrus against being hypnotized by printed books with which he cannot speak. So there’s a sense in which philosophic inquiry/discussion is the cultivation if arguments about meanings of words, particularly ones that are value laden, like justice, courage, virtue, love. . .

  2. A minor quibble: actually, the Japanese word shokubutsu does not relate to grass, straw or hay. The compound’s two component characters simply mean “planted” (as in to set in soil or cultivate a seedling) + “thing.” The first character shoku has a “tree radical” (signifer) rather than a “grass radical,” which really doesn’t alter the author’s argument all that much (it makes little sense to me either way.)

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