Monday, 23 February 2009

Nosferatu: Origin and Definitions

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Nosferatu: Romania. Also nosferat. A decidedly lustful species said in local folklore to be the illegitimate child of illegitimate parents. Shortly after its burial, the creature stirs, leaves its grave, and not only sucks blood but also engages in sexual contact with the living. According to some beliefs, the male is thought to be able to impregnate women whose children are destined to become moroii.
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Other definitions of Nosferatu:
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Nosferatu: A Symphony of Horror is a German Expressionist film by F. W. Murnau, starring Max Schreck as the vampire Count Orlok. The film, shot in 1921 and released in 1922, was in essence an unauthorised adaptation of Bram Stoker's Dracula, with names and other details changed because the studio could not obtain the rights to the novel (for instance, "vampire" became "Nosferatu," and Count Dracula became Count Orlok).
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In 2007, Kino International released Nosferatu: The Ultimate Edition, derived from a new high-definition transfer of the film. This double-disc collection presents the film with the original German intertitles as well as with newly-translated English intertitles. Accompanying the film is a 52-minute documentary by Luciano Berriatúa which provides a detailed account of the production and explores the film makers' involvement in the occult.
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The original meaning of the word nosferatu is difficult to determine. There is no doubt that it achieved popular currency through Bram Stoker's 1897 novel Dracula, and Stoker identified his source for the term as the nineteenth century British author and speaker Emily Gerard who introduced the word into print in a magazine article, Transylvanian Supersitions, 1885, and in her travelogue The Land Beyond the Forest, 1888. Internal evidence in Dracula suggests that Stoker believed the term meant "not dead" in Romanian, and thus he may have intended the word undead to be a calque of it. This idea is demonstrably false, since the word nosferatu in this form has no known meaning (aside from that introduced by the novel and the films) in any historical phase of Romanian.
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Peter Haining identifies an earlier source for nosferatu as Roumanian Superstitions, 1861, by Heinrich von Wlislocki. However, Wlislocki seems only to have written in German, and according to the Magyar Néprajzi Lexikon, Wlislocki was born in 1856 (died 1907), which makes his authorship of an English-titled 1861 source doubtful. Certain details of Haining's citation also conflict with David J. Skal in Hollywood Gothic, 1990 & 2004, so this citation seems unreliable. Skal identifies a similar reference to the word "nosferat" in an article by Wlislocki dating from 1896. Since this postdates Gerard and has a number of parallels to Gerard's work, Skal considers it likely that Wlislocki is derivative from Gerard.
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A leading alternative etymology is that the term originally came from the Greek "nosophoros" (νοσοφόρος), meaning disease-bearing. This derivation could make sense when one considers that amongst Western European nations, vampires were regarded as the carriers of many diseases. F. W. Murnau's classic film Nosferatu strongly emphasizes this theme of disease, and Murnau's creative direction in the film may have been influenced by this etymology or vice-versa.
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However, several difficulties with this explanation should be noted. Gerard clearly identified the word as Romanian and proponents of the "nosophoros" etymology (as well as most other commentators) seem to have little doubt that this is correct, even though Gerard's limited familiarity with the language gives her little authority on that point. If this Romanian identification is taken to be correct, the first objection to the "nosophoros" etymology is that Romanian is a Romance language. While Romanian does have some words borrowed from Greek, as do most European languages, Greek is generally considered to be only a minor contributor to the Romanian vocabulary — absent any other information, any given Romanian word is much more likely to be of Latin origin than Greek. Second, while νοσοφόρος would be a regular compound according to the conventions of Greek morphology, the word itself is not known in any historical phases of the Greek language. That is to say, the word νοσοφόρος simply is not known to have ever existed in Greek, which would seem to make the burden of proof rather high for proposing it to have been the original form of another word in an entirely different language. A single instance of a Greek word similar to νοσοφόρος, νοσηφόρος ("nosēphoros"), is attested in fragments from a second century AD work by Marcellus Sidetes on medicine, but the supporting evidence for a relationship between this apparently very rare medical term and nosferatu is still very weak.
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It is also possible that Gerard's nosferatu was not Romanian at all, but it becomes even more difficult to justify the etymology of a word if its language is not even known. In either case, the glaring difficulty with the νοσοφόρος etymology is that no source has ever presented an argument for it any more substantial than that the two words, one of which may not have even existed, are vaguely similar in sound and meaning. No derivation has been proposed that would accord with a regular derivational process, and no citations of any intermediate forms in primary sources have ever been presented.
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In some versions of the "nosophoros" etymology, an intermediate form nesufur-atu or sometimes nosufur-atu is presented, but both the original source for this and the justification for it are unclear. This form is often indicated to be Slavonic or Slavic, but these terms do not correspond to the commonly recognised names for any language, and it is likely that either Old Church Slavonic or the proto-language Proto-Slavic is intended. As with νοσοφόρος, this supposed Slavonic word does not appear to be attested in primary sources, which severely undermines the credibility of the argument.
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Another common etymology suggests that the word meant "not breathing," which appears to be attempting to read a derivative of the Latin verb spirare ("to breathe") as a second morpheme in nosferatu. Skal notes that this is "without basis in lexicography," viewing all these etymological attempts with similar scepticism.
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A final possibility is that the form Gerard gave is a well-known Romanian term without the benefit of normalised spelling, or possibly a misintrepretation of the sounds of the word due to Gerard's limited familiarity with the language, or possibly a dialectical variant of the word. Two candidate words that have been put forth are necurat ("unclean", usually associated with the occult) and nesuferit ("insufferable"). The nominative masculine definite form of a Romanian noun in the declension to which both words belong takes the ending "-ul", so the definite forms necuratul and nesuferitul are commonly encountered (translatable as "the Devil" and "the insufferable one," respectively).
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