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Monthly etymology gleanings for August 2013, part 2

By Anatoly Liberman

My apologies for the mistakes, and thanks to those who found them. With regard to the word painter “rope,” I was misled by some dictionary, and while writing about gobble-de-gook, I was thinking of galumph. Whatever harm has been done, it has now been undone and even erased. All things considered, I am not broken-hearted, for over the years I have written almost 400 posts and made considerably fewer mistakes. And now to business.

The letters of the alphabet.
One of the questions related to this topic was answered in the comments. Although alphabetical writing attempts to render pronunciation and is therefore from a historical point of view secondary, we hardly know more about its origin than about the origin of language. Every ancient alphabet appears to have been borrowed, but the source of the initial idea remains hidden. According to a credible surmise, A is a natural beginning because it renders or represents the most elementary sound (an open mouth and a yell), but what are we supposed to do with the rest of the sequence?

When people decide that they need more letters, they traditionally add them to the end of the alphabet. This is what the Greeks and the modern Scandinavians did (but it is amusing that Icelandic, Norwegian, Danish, and Swedish letters follow in a different order—so much for the Pan-Scandinavian unity). Some letters drop out, as evidenced by the history of English and Russian, among others. However, examples of an order different from the one familiar to us are not far to seek. One is Sanskrit, another is the Old Scandinavian runic alphabet (futhark). Its strange order (why begin with an f?) has been the object of endless speculation, but a convincing answer has not been found. Each hypothesis explains some oddity rather than the overall system.

Letters often have names. For instance, aleph means “ox,” the runic f was associated with the word for “property” (of which Engl. fee is a distant echo), and so forth. Such names are usually added in retrospect, to facilitate the process of memorization; they can be called mnemonic rules for learners. Our “names” (B = bee, F = ef, etc.) are instances of vocalization. Its history is also partly obscure. I dealt with the name aitch for H in a recent blog. Professor Weinstock cited alphabets in which H and K follow immediately upon each other. See the picture in his article “The Rise of the Letter-Name ‘Aitch’” (English Studies 76, 1995, p. 356).

Rigveda MS in Sanskrit on paper, India, early 19th c.
Rigveda MS in Sanskrit on paper, India, early 19th c., 4 vols., 795 ff. (complete), 10×20 cm, single column, (7×17 cm), 10 lines in Devanagari script with deletions in yellow, Vedic accents, corrections etc in red. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Definition of literacy.
In my file I discovered a question asked long ago. I doubt that I ever answered it and don’t know whether our correspondent still needs an answer. In any case, I am sorry that I mislaid the letter. Can the American Sign Language (ASL) be viewed as having literacy? “ASL has never been considered as purely oral. It does not have a written system but some of us consider ASL as having literacy.” Judging by the usage familiar to most of us, literacy deals with writing. The person who cannot read and write is “illiterate.” The communities of the past that had no writing systems are sometimes referred to as preliterate (an unfortunate term, for it implies that literacy is a natural state in the development of culture). To the extent that ASL addresses itself to the eye it probably cannot be called a form of literacy. Our correspondent added the following statement: “As you may be aware, literacy is much more than reading/writing. I am trying to argue that ASL with no written system of its own can truly be considered as literate or having literacy. This is not a major concern because approximately 67% of the spoken languages in the world have no written forms.” It seems that, unless we broaden the definitions and make too much of such phrases as computer literacy, in which literacy means “expertise,” and literate as synonymous with “educated, learned; well-read” (he is very literate), ASL cannot be called a literate language. Like several other sign languages, it is a means of communication that bypasses writing.

“Week” and its cognates.
Why does Engl. week have a so-called long vowel, while German has Woche, Swedish has vecka, and so forth, all of them with a short vowel in the root? The oldest form of the word must have been wika. Initial w tended to change the vowel that followed it; hence the labial vowels u and o (as in German Woche). In the Scandinavian languages, w was lost before u and o, which explains Norwegian uke and Danish uge. In the languages in which the vowel did not become u or o, it often became e (o in Woche goes back to e). In Old English, the form was wice ~ wicu, but in Middle English, as in the other Germanic languages, a vowel standing before a single consonant tended to get length. That is why German Name and its English cognate name have long vowels. However, in English, short i and short u tended to resist lengthening, and, if they succumbed to the change, they became long e and long o (long in its etymological sense, that is protracted, with an increase in duration, not as they are understood in Modern English!). Engl. wice became weke (with long e), and this long e changed to ee by the Great Vowel Shift. Similar processes occurred in many Scandinavian dialects. Elsewhere we have only a more open vowel (short e), without lengthening; hence Swedish vecka. The Norwegian and Swedish forms have long vowels, even though it is u rather than i or e. Sorry for an overabundance of technicalities, but here the answer depended entirely on details of this nature.

I should have quoted the letter of our correspondent rather than retelling it. This would have made some comments unnecessary.

“The particular name I am interested in is meleda from Pieter van Delft & Jack Botermans’ 1978 Creative Puzzles of the World: ‘Meleda first appeared in Europe in the mid-16th century and was described by the Italian mathematician Geronimo Cardano.’ Some folk appear to have taken this to mean that Cardano himself used the word but I do not see it in the relevant De Subtilitate paragraphs which describe the ‘instrument’ in Latin. In fact, at present I have no reference to meleda prior to 1978. Google’s Ngram Viewer suggests major usage only after 1900 but this appears to be an island name and (perhaps) a disease related to it.”

So the puzzle (I mean the earliest recorded use of the word) remains.

If you will and related matters.
Here is an elegant example of will after if. “‘If he [Snowden] wants to go somewhere and somebody will host him—no problem,’ Putin said.” Unfortunately, this is a translation. The Associated Press did not quote the Russian original, and I wonder what Putin meant. I suspect something like …“and if somebody is willing to host him.” Compare another sentence: “If a girl younger than sixteen gives birth and won’t name the father, a new Mississippi law… says…” (also from the Associated Press). Is the sequence justified? And finally, an extract from a letter to the editor: “…if someone—anyone—reading this will think of their family before getting behind the wheel, it would bring me some sense of peace.” Does if someone will think mean “please think”? And does would after will sound like today’s standard American usage? It is not my intention to police anyone’s speech habits (let her rip): as a linguist I am just wondering what has happened to auxiliary verbs in conditional clauses.

Yes, of course I am aware of the alternate etymology of vodka, and Chernykh’s two-volume dictionary stands on my shelf next to Vasmer’s and a few others. However, the origin of the word remains unsolved (clearly not “little water”!).

I still have several unanswered questions. Next month!

Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears on the OUPblog each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to him care of [email protected]; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”

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Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    Computer literacy does not mean ‘computer expertise’, but mere — indeed, minimal — competence with computers. If someone is literate in the narrow sense, they can read and write, but no more than that; it does not imply any actual education whatever.

    If you won’t X means ‘If you refuse to X’ and has nothing to do with futurity. Googling instantly finds a book titled If You Won’t Read, Why Should I Write? which exemplifies this.

  2. annie morgan

    “…a vowel standing before a single consonant tended to get length.” It still does, mostly, doesn’t it. Lots of exceptions, but that’s half the fun of English.

    My husband finds me quite annoying when I come across words like “kidnaping/kidnaped”, and worshiping/worshiped”.
    Is it sooooo much trouble to double the consonant?

  3. nikita

    The original Putin’s phrase is “Если он захочет куда-то уехать и кто-то его примет — пожалуйста” (http://ria.ru/politics/20130701/946914332.html).

    It once occurred to me that alphabet ordering can be related to the numerical values of letters. Suppose that an alphabet is unordered originally, it is a set rather than sequence. But once numerical values are assigned to letters, there is a natural order, which tends to reproduce and eventually is associated with the alphabet itself.

    Is there any evidence that alphabet ordering predates use of letters as numbers?

  4. […] thanks to Nikita for providing the Russian original of Putin’s comment on Snowden and a promise to deal with the word qualm in a special post. I have more questions but […]

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