Michał Karzyński


So… now that I have a new blog, it would seem like a good idea to post something. Let’s see… what did I want to write about? Oh yes… ‘the Universe’

After reading the ‘Library of Babel’ by Borges (which you have to read!), I started to think about the word “universe”.

I became very excited and planned to conduct a small scale linguistic investigation into this strange and underappreciated word. “Universe” is the one word which describes everything which surrounds us, everything which exists or may exist anywhere. It is a very fundamental philosophical concept and yet it is a word used so often.

It is used in astronomy, cosmology, quantum mechanics, thermodynamics… One interpretation of quantum physics even talks about many universes, which denies the word its universal nature. “Many universes”, “parallel universes”, or simply “universes” (in the plural) is a contradiction in terms.

It is clear that the word is not used carefully nowadays, but what is even more interesting to me is how it was used in the past. Where does the word come from? What is it’s etymology and how are the various etymologies different in different cultures?

Finding this out was the aim of my linguistic exercise. I searched among my friends speaking various languages, for the equivalents in their languages.

The word Universe is derived from Universum in Latin. Uni (meaning one) and versum (meaning to turn into), universum means to be turned into one, to be united, to become combined into one wholeness, togetherness, completness. That’s a very interesting idea… everything that may exist was to the Latin speakers rolled into one concept.

That’s very different from the Slavic equivalent of the word. In Polish “wszech?wiat” derives from Wszech (meaning all) and ?wiat (meaning world). It means the all-world, the all encompasing world, or the world which is all worlds. Here the plurality of the concept is not denied as in Latin.

Upon finding this out, I wanted to learn how other languages dealt with this issue. I was disappointed to find out however, that most European languages share one etymology, the Latin one. Even in the Euskara language (of the Bask) the word is “Unibertso”.

I think I will need to look to some languages from outside of our continent for more suprises. Unfortunatelly, I have very few friends in Africa, Asia… Perhaps you know someone?