Final Word

Babel’s stinking wind still blowing


A tourist travelling through Denmark might be worried about what he has been eating the previous night when looking at some of the traffic signs posted along roads in that country.

A friend recently emailed me a picture of such a traffic sign which warns drivers that ‘Fartkontrol’ is being enforced on that particular road. The second part of the word, ‘-kontrol’, is easy to understand as ‘control’, but the ‘fart’-part might have the uninformed confused and thinking that the Danish are taking pollution control somewhat to the extreme.

The sign reminded me of our report here in May 2013 about the Tower of Babel Project which seeks to establish the probability of the existence of a single original or “Adam” language way back in history.

A scientific paper published late in 2012 by the project claimed that researchers have indeed identified an ancestral language that existed as far back as 15 000 years ago in the Eurasian area. Researchers discovered a number of words, which they could trace back over 15 000 years. These words, which include ‘father’ and ‘fart’ cropped up in similar forms in at least four of the seven language families studied across Eurasia.

This places these words to around the time the glaciers would have been melting at the end of the Ice Age, which saw humans spreading across the globe and dialects developing and languages starting to diverge. To this day these words remain very similar in languages as far apart as Spanish and Hindi.

If we now look at the modern definition of the word ‘fart’ in English, we get our first hint from where the Danish traffic sign comes from. It came from the Old English word ‘feortan’, which means “to break wind”. The medical term for gas released from the intestines is ‘flatulence’.

‘Fart’ itself is a slang term coined as far back as 1632 and The Oxford Dictionary defines the transitive verb of ‘fart’ as: “To send forth as wind from the anus”, making it no wonder that is nowadays mostly regarded as a vulgar word not suitable for use in polite conversation.

The link with the Danish traffic sign lies in the ‘wind’ involved and the days of sailing. The word ‘vaart’ in Dutch and Afrikaans, ‘fahrt’ in German, and like-sounding words in a number or other languages from the same linguistic family, can mean either “speed” or “voyage” – from the days of travelling at sea, courtesy of the wind.

While in many languages we have equivalents of the English expression “as quick as the wind,” in German, when telling someone to drive slowly we would tell them: “langsam fahren.”

With this background our traveller through Denmark would probably have correctly guessed that the ‘fartkontrol’ sign is warning him that he is travelling on a road where speed checks are enforced. If he was confused he was probably a victim of the ill winds of Babel, which after all comes from the Hebrew word ‘balal’ meaning “confusion” or “to jumble”.

And, by the way, those who named their quest to find an “Adam language” The Tower of Babel Project were seemingly confused themselves. The Bible itself in describing the infliction of confusion on the people on earth in Genesis 11: 1-9 does not use the phrase “Tower of Babel” but only refers to “the city and its tower”. After the confusion and the scattering of the people, they stopped building the city and “that is why it was called Babel …”


Since ‘fart’ is described as one of the oldest words in English by most sources, it is no surprise that it found its way into a multitude of expressions and that the phenomenon of slang rhyme also got hold of it.

If you call somebody a real strawberry or raspberry, you are really telling him or her off as a ‘fart’ because it rhymes with ‘strawberry/raspberry tart’.

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by Piet Coetzer

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