Francis Mercury van Helmont


vanhelmont.jpgFrancis Van Helmont, a Belgian physician, was part of a 17th century effort to uncover universal languages. In 1667 he published a The Alphabet of Nature in which he argued that Hebrew was a proto-language and one that was closest to how the speech organs were intended to be used. He worked to show that the sounds of Hebrew were the ones most easily reproduced by the human vocal organs.

To prove his thesis he tried to demonstrate how the movement of tongue, palate, uvula and glottis reproduced the shapes of the corresponding Hebrew letters. Not only did the Hebrew sounds reflect the inherent nature of things themselves, van Helmont argued, but the very material from which the human vocal organs were formed had been especially sculpted to speak and write Hebrew.

In order to show the naturalness of Hebrew for speaking Von Helmont said he taught a deaf-mute to speak in just three weeks simply by instructing him to form the letters of the Hebrew alphabet with his tongue.

van Helmont's work contributed to the development of religious tolerance. However, he was accused of "Judaising" and imprisoned by those in charge of the Inquisition.

Writings about Francis van Helmont

Coudert, Allison (2004) Judaizing in the Seventeenth Century: Francis Mercury van Helmont and Johann Peter Spaeth (Moses Germanus). In Martin Muslow & Richard Popkin (Eds). Secret conversions to Judaisim in early modern Europe (71-121). Leiden: Brill.

Coudert, Allison (1999). The Impact of the Kabbalah in the 17th Century: The life and thought of Francis Mercury van Helmont, 1614-1698 (Brill's Series in Jewish Studies, 9). Retrieved on May 7, 2010.

Klijnsmit, A.J. (1996) Franciscus Mercurius van Helmont: Kabbalist and phonetician. Studia Rosenthaliana, 30, 2 (1996): 267-81 [Hebrew grammar & linguistics in the Dutch Republic].

Sherrer, Grace B. (1938). Francis Mercury van Helmont: A neglected seventeenth - century contribution to the science of language. The Review of English Studies, Vol. 14, No. 56 (Oct.), 420-427.