The Lilliputians in Swift's Gulliver's Travels may have been speaking Hebrew

Linguist links nonsense language to Hebrew in Swift's classic of English literature.

August 12, 2015 16:34
2 minute read.
Title page of first edition of Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift.

Title page of first edition of Gulliver's Travels by Jonathan Swift. . (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Long thought to have spoken “nonsense” languages, the Lilliputians and other creatures from Jonathan Swift’s 1726 work Gulliver’s Travels may in fact have been speaking variations of Hebrew.

The theory was put forth by Irving N. Rothman, a professor of English literature and Jewish studies at the University of Houston, in research that was published in the summer 2015 edition of Swift Studies – an annual review of scholarship on the work of the novelist, produced by the Ehrenpreis Center for Swift Studies in Germany. The article, titled, “The ‘Hnea Yahoo’ of Gulliver’s Travels and Jonathan Swift’s Hebrew Neologisms,” points out a number of clues that the language mentioned in the book could have been a type of Hebrew, including the fact that Swift was an Anglican minister who had studied the language at Trinity College Dublin.

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The alphabet in the land of giants, Brobdingnag, consists of 22 letters: the same as the Hebrew alphabet.

Rothman said his strongest evidence that the language was actually Hebrew, however, was his interpretation of the book’s use of the word “yahoo.”

“Yahoo” is used to describe the creatures Gulliver encounters in “Book IV.” They are portrayed as a wild and irrational human-like species.

“Many scholars in the critical history of the Travels are agreed that ‘the most powerful single symbol in all Swift is the Yahoos. [They] represent... the bestial element in man – the unenlightened, unregenerate, irrational element in human nature,’” Rothman wrote.

He noted earlier interpretations suggesting that the word comes from the four-letter Hebrew name of God, also known as the tetragramma - ton. By relying on different sounds, or allophones, of the letter v – equivalent to the Hebrew letter “vav,” which can be pronounced as “v,” “oh” or “ooh,” Rothman said that he had broken the code of the cryptic language. With the word “yahoo,” Swift employed the “ooh” pronunciation of the letter.

The yahoos, in the book, are described as “hnea Yahoo.” He said that the word “hnea,” – if read from right-to-left, like Hebrew – becomes the word “ain” – Hebrew for “not.”

“Those beasts are the opposite of God,” Rothman explained.

Gulliver, Rothman concluded, “is not in any sense a Yahoo entirely devoid of godlike virtues. Indeed, Gulliver is a human being achieving saving grace, a hope not accorded to the Yahoo.”

In the future, Rothman predicted, Swift’s use of Hebrew terminology will become part of the teaching curriculum for Gulliver’s Travels , a book that remains a staple fixture on high school and college reading lists.

Gulliver’s Travels is Swift’s best-known work. Written in the voice of traveler Lemuel Gulliver, the novel reports the unlucky Gulliver’s various adventures, including his capture on the shores of the island nation of Lilliput by a race of people just six inches tall.

Previous commentators did not make any such connection between the characters’ language and any real-life tongue. In his annotated version of the book published in 1980, Isaac Asimov wrote that “making sense out of the words and phrases introduced by Swift... is a waste of time.... I suspect that Swift simply made up nonsense for the purpose.”

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