“Philology provides a better path to the truth than philosophy.”

~ George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff

At the beginning of The Tales, not on the first page, but actually before the first page on the “copyright page”  we find the following paragraph:

Original written in Russian and Armenian. Translations into other languages have been made under the personal direction of the author, by a group of translators chosen by him and specially trained according to their defined individualities, in conformity with the text to be translated and in relation to the philological particularities of each language.

You could easily miss this paragraph and most people do, but it is important. Gurdjieff is announcing that The Tales has been written philologically. He may have had several reasons for including that paragraph. The fact that the original was written in Russian and Armenian helps the reader a little when trying to unravel the neologisms (new words) that Gurdjieff invented for this book. Many of those words have Armenian or Russian roots and thus those are the first two languages to go to for help. Greek roots are also common, but that should be no surprise he spoke all three of those languages when he was young.

Far more important however is the fact that The Tales is objective literature and as such it had to be written not only for contemporary audiences but also for those that may read this book in centuries yet to come.

Other scripture is written in specialized languages: The Hebrew of the Torah, The Greek of the New Testament and the Arabic of the Koran. It was necessary for Gurdjieff to work in that mongrel language English and also in German and French which are almost as challenging in respect of the ability to create objective literature.


If English is the only language you know, you are ill-equipped to understand the general nature of languages. English may be the dominant modern language, but it is also a highly irregular language for many reasons. It is worth mentioning a few of its irregularities.

In terms of the words used, English is composed mainly of early German words, as spoken by the German tribes (Angles, Saxons and Jutes) who invaded and settled in Britain in the 5th century. That language was heavily modified by the Normans, who invaded in the 11th century, leading to the addition of many French words. However, their leader, William The Conqueror, was descended from Viking raiders. The Vikings periodically invaded the East Coast of Britain for centuries and also gave a Scandinavian influence to the language. All of these influences overlaid the Celtic tongues spoken by the more ancient British, which were first overlaid by Latin after the Romans conquered England, but not Scotland, Ireland or Wales.

English thus had many contributing sources for words and varieties of expression. To that mixture we need also to take into account that English speakers have a habit of borrowing words from other languages without changing them much or at all.

The tendency to purloin words from other languages is facilitated by the fact that English has very few imposed word endings – and it has no conventions whatever for the forming of new words, except in the scientific field where it happily borrows word roots (morphemes) or whole words from Greek or Latin, and in the field of Law, where Latin-Roman legal terms predominate.

It was impractical for Gurdjieff not to write his masterpiece in English and so he made do, by writing philologically. In short, he does not depend on the modern meaning of a word he uses, he depends upon its etymological meaning.

A simple example, to be found in the Friendly Advice which occurs prior to the contents pages is as follows:

He writes: 

[Written impromptu by the author on delivering this book, already prepared for publication, to the printer.]

The word impromptu is usually taken to mean “done without being planned, organized, or rehearsed.” However, etymologically the meaning is: 1660s, from French impromptu (1650s), from Latin in promptu “in readiness.”

This meaning is distinctly different and it is this second meaning that Gurdjieff intends.

This is not Gurdjieff being obtuse, it is Gurdjieff preparing for the fact that the English language will inevitably experience many changes of meaning in the time after the publication of The Tales and hence the only safe meaning he can depend on is the etymological one.

Incidentally, there are several examples of this having already occurred. One example is to be found in this chapter title:

Beelzebub’s Survey of the Process of the Periodic Reciprocal Destruction of Men, or Beelzebub’s Opinion of War

The word “survey” nowadays is usually taken to mean: “an investigation of the opinions or experience of a group of people, based on a series of questions.” The prior meaning of “to look carefully and thoroughly at (someone or something), especially so as to appraise them,” is gradually falling out of use. 

By writing The Tales philologically Gurdjieff took this inevitable change of meaning into account.