Abel, Carl (1837-1906)

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ABEL, CARL (1837-1906)

Carl Abel was a German linguist known for his research on Indo-European and Hamito-Semitic lexicology, which was published in his Einleitung in ein Aegyptischsemitisch indoeuropeanisches Wurzelwörterbuch (1886).

It was his theory of the "opposite meanings of primitive words" that interested Freud when, after alluding to the idea in the Interpretation of Dreams (1900a), he wrote an article on the subject ten years later, entitled "The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words" (1910e). The theory appeared in Abel's article "Über den Gegensinn der Urworte," which appeared in Sprachwissenschaftliche Abhandungen, published in Leipzig in 1885.

Basing his thesis on the fact that a Latin word such as sacer signified both "sacred" and "taboo," Abel proposed a theory of the way vocabulary evolves in languages. For Abel, a word in its primitive state can have opposite meanings, which are gradually distinguished through the progress of the rational intellect. "When learning to think about force, we have to separate it from weakness; to conceive of darkness, we must isolate it from light."

For Freud, primitive words mark a stage of symbolization that precedes the separation of opposites brought on by the reality principle. This cultural phenomenon is comparable to the dream process, which enables a representational content to assume a value as the expression of a desire and an antithetical desire. Consequently, the logic of the primary process is felt in a cultural formation as fully developed as language.

Is there a linguistic basis to Abel's theory? Some eminent linguists such asÉmile Benveniste have claimed the entire theory to be false. If Latin has only one word for "sacred" and "taboo," they claim, it is because Roman culture doesn't differentiate between them. It is translation that creates the illusion of opposite meanings. According to Benveniste, the Latin concept corresponding to the word sacer simply characterizes a field that extends beyond the frontiers of the human and constitutes the undifferentiated domain of the sacred and the taboo.

Benveniste's reasoning is rigorous but it is worth pointing out that there are rhetorical figures such as euphemism or antiphrasis designed to create a reversal of meanings similar to that of primitive words. So when someone remarks of an idiot "What a genius!", they assign an antiphrastic value to the word "genius," which, in conjunction with its primary value, turns the signifier "genius" into a good example of a primitive word combining the opposite meanings of "intelligent" and "stupid." The fact remains, however, that the rhetorical figure is based on an initial disjunction of opposite values rather than the confusion that Abel assigns to his construction. For we can only refer to an idiot as a "genius" if "genius" initially means genius, not if the term refers to any unit that incorporates the meanings of both "genius" and "idiot." The process works by an enrichment of the opposite meanings assigned from the outset. It is also possible that the lack of differentiation that occurs in dreams results in a conjunction of opposed values that is closer to the mechanism described above than to any initial blurring, which, according to Abel, is characteristic of the meanings of primitive words.

Laurent Danon-Boileau

See also: Linguistics and psychoanalysis; Reversal into the opposite.


Abel, Carl. (1885).Über den Gegensinn der Urworte. Sprachwissenschaftliche Abhandungen, 313-367.

Freud, Sigmund. (1900a). The interpretation of dreams. SE, 5: 1-338; SE, 5: 339-625.

. (1910e). The antithetical meaning of primal words. SE, 11: 155-161.