By Mark Sundaram
Welcome to the Endless Knot! Today a meta-episode, in which we look at what the etymology of the word “etymology” tells us about how etymology works!
Words have a past, and like all of us they can change as they grow—so it’s often important to consider their etymology, or history. Words are, in a sense, the fossil remains of culture, the traces left behind by years of cultural change, so by examining these potsherds of language we gain insight into the history of culture by looking at what semantic frame has been connected to a given word throughout its history. However, we must remember that the meanings of words do change over time, and what a word means now is not necessarily determined by what it used to mean, as is the case for instance with the word decimated, which used to mean “reduced by a tenth”, but now is commonly used to mean “reduced by a nonspecific extreme amount”. And yes, whatever the pedants say, literally can be meant figuratively and just be used as an intensifier. If we forget this, and think that a word must always mean what its roots once meant, we are committing the etymological fallacy. Besides, what’s really fascinating is the way words change over time.
So, the etym- part of the word etymology comes from a Greek root meaning ‘true’, so etymology originally meant the study of the truth behind words, -logy meaning the study of, from Greek logos meaning “word, thought, or explanation”. Greek etumos may be related to sooth as in soothsayer (a teller of truths) and forsooth meaning, one might say, “for reals”. In fact, in Classical and medieval times scholars often believed that by finding the “true” roots and meanings of words they could learn about the “true” nature of reality, and even God’s plan itself. Perhaps the most famous example of this was Isidore of Seville’s great work, the Etymologiae, which sought to explain the world by finding the true names of everything in it. Nowadays, of course, we use the term etymology to refer to study of the origins and history of words, as opposed to their current meanings and uses.
Actually, Isidore’s Etymologiae is more than just a work of etymology. It’s an encyclopedic collection of all the knowledge that Isidore, a 5th to 6th century bishop with feet planted in both the classical and medieval worlds, thought important. It’s full of information about the classical world that would have been lost otherwise, and came to be a standard textbook of medieval education in the seven liberal arts, made up of the subjects of the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). In fact, that’s sort of what encyclopedia means. It comes from the Greek phrase encuclios paideia, literally the “circle of education” referring to the educational curriculum, and initially that’s what the word meant in English too. Encuclios comes from a root that means “to revolve” and is related to the words cycle and wheel. And paideia literally means “child rearing” coming from Greek pais meaning “child”, and ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “little or few”. From this in the “child” sense we get words such as pediatrician, and in the “education” sense words such as pedagogy and pedant — a word too often connected to lovers of language! Isidore drew on other earlier “encyclopedic” general knowledge books like Pliny’s Natural History, and there have since been other such works. However, one of the first modern encyclopedias as we would recognize it today was the Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers compiled by enlightenment thinker Denis Diderot. Today, of course, print encyclopedias have all but disappeared, largely replaced by online resources such as Wikipedia (from the Hawaiian word wiki meaning quick, so literally then a portmanteau meaning “quick education”, fitting no?). So it is perhaps appropriate that Isidore of Seville has been suggested as the patron saint of the internet.
But getting back to etymology, while we often trace words back to their immediate source before coming into modern English, such as Old English, French, Latin, or Greek, we can sometimes go back to English’s most distant traceable ancestor, Proto-Indo-European. So it’s time for a word about that.
Languages are like families, with parent, child, and cousin languages. English, for instance, is one member of the Indo-European family of languages, and counts among its relatives languages such as Latin, French, German, Greek, and Hindi—and a long list of others. The ultimate parent of all these languages is thus said to be Proto-Indo-European, a hypothetical reconstructed language. That’s what a proto-language is, a hypothetical reconstructed language from which other known languages descend, from Greek proton meaning “first”, so Proto-Indo-European is the first Indo-European language. And for completeness, Indo- and India come, through Latin, Greek, and Persian, from a Sanskrit word meaning “river”, possibly from an Indo-European root which means “to drive or go away”. And European and Europe come from a figure in Greek myth named Europa, who was ravished by the god Zeus. But the name is of uncertain ultimate origin, possibly meaning “broad face” from eurys meaning “wide” and ops meaning literally “eye”, or ironically possibly from a non-Indo-European source, such as Akkadian erebu “to go down, set”, as in sunset, or Phoenician ‘ereb meaning “evening”, either way suggesting the west.
We don’t know for sure when or where the original speakers of Proto-Indo-European lived, but it was probably in or before the 4th millennium BCE. One theory, called the Kurgan hypothesis, is that they lived in the steppeland north of the Black Sea, the Caucasus Mountains, and the Caspian Sea, where the horse was first domesticated, and it was this technological advance which allowed them to herd more efficiently and to expand into new areas. Another theory, the Anatolian hypothesis, is that they originally lived in the area around modern-day Turkey and instead were an agricultural society. Either way, these original Indo-Europeans did spread into new areas bringing their culture and, most importantly for our purposes, their language with them.
When we talk about reconstructing proto-languages like Proto-Indo-European or Proto-Germanic, it’s like doing genealogical research to find a long-lost ancestor, only without any actual physical evidence. Proto-languages existed in a time before writing was available, so no written record survives, but by looking at a number of “child” languages that we believe are related, we can make some good guesses as to what their parent must have been like. So English father corresponds to Latin pater, Greek patēr, and Sanskrit pitr, and we can therefore posit the Proto-Indo-European *pəter, (the asterisk written in front of it means it’s a hypothetical reconstructed form). Nor is it just a question of finding a number of similar sounding words with similar meanings in a number of different languages. After all, words can travel (or be snatched) directly from one language into another – so that’s not enough proof. Furthermore, words from different languages might be coincidentally similar. Therefore historical linguists look for regular systematic and predictable correspondences between sounds in those sets of similar words. So for instance, the Germanic f in English words such as father, foot, and fish corresponds predictably with p in other Indo-European languages, such as Latin pater, pes/pedis, and piscis (and also with Greek patēr, and pous/podos, for that matter). This is particularly noticeable in English. Originally a Germanic language, over time it borrowed many words from other Indo-European languages, such as from Latin because that was the language of the Church and of scholarship during the middle ages and renaissance, from French because of the Norman Conquest in 1066, and from Greek because it was often used as the language of scientific terminology after the rediscovery of the writings of the ancient Greeks. So English ended up with sets of related words— such as star and astrology, or fatherhood and paternity — which linguists call cognates, sort of like cousins (cognatus means ‘born together’ or ‘related by birth’ in Latin). And knowing this tells you that hemp comes from the same plant as cannabis, sends your hound to a kennel, or gets you doing your cardio exercise to improve the health of your heart.
The last set of examples gives you another sound correspondence: Germanic h for Latin or Greek c or k. These particular correspondences between certain consonants in Germanic languages and other Indo-European languages, to follow yet another strand in the etymological web, is called Grimm’s Law, after Jacob Grimm (yes, that Jacob Grimm, of the Brothers Grimm). In addition to collecting folktales, Grimm was one of the early pioneers in the field of comparative philology, comparing different languages to work out which ones were related and how. Basically Grimm’s Law describes a sound change that happened to Proto-Indo-European consonants as they passed into Proto-Germanic. So the voiceless stops in Proto-Indo-European became voiceless fricatives in Proto-Germanic, that is, p, t, k, and kw became f, th, x, and xw (with x and xw eventually becoming h and hw). The voiced stops b, d, g, and gw lost their voicing (that is the vibration of the vocal chords) and filled the gap left by the voiceless stops becoming p, t, k, and kw. The voiced aspirated stops lost their aspiration (a little extra breath of air) and became those regular unaspirated voiced stops. The word philology, by the way, referring to ‘historical linguistics’ or more broadly ‘study of language in written texts’ literally means love of words, which I suppose you must have, as I do, if you’re interested in knowing how all these sound changes work!
By the way, Grimm wasn’t exactly the first to come up with the idea. Friedrich Schlegel was the first to note the p-f correspondence, and Rasmus Rask suggested further sound correspondences, but since Grimm was the first to clearly explain the idea as a regular sound change (at least initially crediting Rask), we now generally refer to this as Grimm’s Law (though some people have suggested Rask’s Rule as an alternate name).
However, it was really one of Grimm’s predecessors who kicked the whole thing off. In a way, we have trade monopolies and British imperialism to thank for his discovery. During the time of the great European empires, from the 17th through the 19th centuries, many countries set up what became known as East India Companies with trade monopolies in the east. Britain’s East India Company eventually came to have so much power and control in India that it became a kind of quasi-government, with its own currency, armed forces, and legal system. Eventually the British government decided it would be a good idea to take more of an active interest in the activities of the Company, and appointed a Governor General in Bengal, one Warren Hastings, who by the way was an admirer of our encyclopedist Denis Diderot and read his writings on the way to India. Hastings also became a big fan of India’s ancient culture and texts, and it became policy to run the administration and legal system in the area based on existing customs. Problem was, the ancient laws were written in the equally ancient language Sanskrit, so British judges had to rely on local knowledge, which they didn’t entirely trust. They were dependent on the interpretation of the pandits, scholars of Sanskrit — that’s where we get the word pundit, and fittingly too, given the potential for mistrust in both the original and contemporary senses of the word.
It was into this situation that language genius William Jones arrived. Jones already had a reputation as a gifted philologist, with knowledge of dozens of languages, and after receiving a judicial appointment in Bengal he took up the study of Sanskrit in order to translate those legal codes, and in his spare time founded the Asiatic Society with Hastings to pursue serious linguistic studies. And though there were others who had noticed similarities between different languages and suggested relationships, Jones was the first to really formulate the idea of a proto-language from which many other languages descend, what we now call Proto-Indo-European.
Jones’s interest in Indo-European comparative philology kicked off a whole cottage industry in comparative studies in Indo-European (and other) cultures, such as comparative mythology and folklore, which included Grimm’s other great work, the collection of folktales and fairytales he compiled with his brother Wilhelm. That same father example from before gives us a clue as to how this works. Many Indo-European cultures seem to have had sky-father gods, so we can posit Proto-Indo-European *Dyeu-Pəter as meaning literally ‘shining father’, which becomes Jupiter in Latin. *Dyeu also leads to Jove, another name for Jupiter; deus, the Latin word for ‘god’; the Greek god Zeus; and the Germanic god Tyr (in Old Norse) and Tiw (in Old English), who is the namesake of Tuesday.
So we started by digging up the past to try to find the ancestral truth about language by looking at its fossils. What we found was that, like all living things, language evolves, changes over time. And so while we fill in the family portraits of our genealogy we also have the fun of looking forward to snapshots of the next generations of our ever-evolving English language.
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