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Our habitat: house

It is astounding how mysterious the origin of such simple words as man, wife, son, god, house, and others like them is. They are old, even ancient, and over time their form has changed very little, sometimes not at all, so that we don’t have to break through a thicket of sound laws to restitute their initial form. They have been monosyllabic for millennia, and even in the reconstructed protolanguage they were only one syllable longer (an ending or a so-called thematic vowel followed by one consonant). But two thousand years ago they would already have puzzled us as they do today. Conventional wisdom suggests that to call a man a man and a house a house, people chose some easily available language material; yet we can seldom recover it.

If we look at the etymology of such well-known words for “house” as French maison, Italian casa, and Russian dom, we will see that they once referred to covering and hiding somebody or something, or to being “put, fitted together.” Users of English dictionaries will find some information about them in the entries on mansion, case “holder,” casement, and dome. Going further, they will discover the current connection between Latin domus and Engl. timber and tame. In light of such facts, the etymology of house, recognized by most language historians, even though sometimes with an ill grace, makes sense. The oldest recorded form of house is hus, with long u (long u is the vowel we hear in Modern Engl. too), and it seems to be related to the verb hide and through it to the noun hut. Hut came to English from French, but French had it from Old High German. Therefore, the comparison is legitimate. Trouble comes from the final consonant -s, for, if hide and hut are cognates, one expects –t or –d, rather than s, at the end of house (hus). This is not a good place for disentangling phonetic niceties, the more so as they have not been disentangled in a perfectly convincing way. We have a better chance of finding out what kind of a place the speakers of Old Germanic called hus.

Henryk Ibsen's A Doll's House
Henryk Ibsen’s A Doll’s House

In the fourth-century Gothic text, which is a translation of the New Testament, hus occurred only as the second element of the compound gud-hus “(Jewish) temple.” (Gud, of course, means “god”; Germanic had several words for “pagan temple”). The word for what we call “house” was razn. It corresponded to Old Engl. ærn ~ ern ~ ern, still preserved in barn (b- is all that is left of bere “barley”) and saltern “salt works.” The Old Icelandic cognate of razn was rann, and it too lingers in English as the first element of ransack, a borrowing from Scandinavian. There also were other Gothic words for “house,” namely gards and hrot (Engl. yard and quite possibly roost are related to them). No doubt, all of them referred to different structures and buildings, but we should note only one thing: the oldest Germanic family hardly lived in a place called hus.

This conclusion is borne out in a rather unexpected way. There must have been something about the function or appearance or both of the Germanic hus that distinguished it from its counterparts elsewhere, because the word for it made its way into Old Slavic. The Slavs lived in a dom. The hus served other purposes. Since the borrowing goes back to a remote past, we may assume that the word taken over from the Germanic neighbors meant in Slavic approximately or even exactly what it once meant in the lending language. The noun in question is extant practically all over the Slavic-speaking world (though more often in regional dialects than in the Standards). The present day senses of its reflexes do sometimes mean “house” and “home,” but these senses are swamped by “earth house,” “hut” (as in obsolete Polish chyz and Russian khizhina; I have highlighted the stressed root), “the place for building a house,” “a winter shed,” “a shed in the woods,” “storehouse,” hayloft,” “marquee,” “barn (granary),” “closet,” and “storehouse.” Thus, we find all kinds of names for “outhouses.” Even “monastery cell” occurs in the list, and, characteristically, this meaning was ascribed to Gothic hus (allegedly, a one-room structure) in gud-hus. If originally hus denoted a place for temporary protection of people from the elements (“a hut”) or for sheltering grain and other things, the connection of hus and hide is unobjectionable. As noted, it is only the last consonant that spoils the otherwise rather neat picture.

The word is and has always been neuter. The assignment of hus to this gender might be an accident of grammar, but it might be caused by its semantics. Two circumstances made me ask why hus and, incidentally, both Gothic razn and hrot were neuter. First, the situation in Icelandic comes to mind. What was called hús in Old Icelandic (ú designates vowel length, not stress) was not a separate building but a string of “chambers” that made up the farmhouse. Next to the living quarters, often without a partition, a sheepfold was situated; in winter, sheep’s breath served as “fuel” and warmed the room. So I wondered whether perhaps the old hus looked like the medieval Icelandic farm, with the word being coined as a collective plural. Later a singular may have been formed from it. This is a common process.

Then there is the word hotel (French hôtel), with its older form ostel, from which English has ostler. Hotel is related to hospital, hospitality, hospice, and host. The medieval “hotel” first designated any building for human habitation, though the modern sense is also old. Late Latin hospitale is the neuter plural of the adjective hospitalis turned into a noun (the technical term for such a change in grammatical usage is substantivization; thus, hospitale is a substantivized adjective). Again a neuter, even though in the singular.

The Burning of the Houses of Parliament by William Turner
The Burning of the Houses of Parliament by JMW Turner

I am not jumping to conclusions. In etymology, he who jumps and leaps perishes, and I want to live long enough to produces many more posts. But it so happened that in my work I, on various occasions, keep encountering neuter plurals, and in the huge literature on the word house no one seems to have asked why the word is neuter (that is, perhaps someone did, but I missed the relevant place: one can never be sure), so I thought that there would be no harm in mentioning this detail.

As could be expected, etymologists spent some time hunting for distant congeners of house. A Hittite and an Armenian word have been proposed. As far as I can judge, neither has aroused any interest, and probably for good reason. House appears to have been a local (Germanic) coinage, but whether we have discovered its etymon remains unclear. That is why the most cautious dictionaries call house a word of uncertain etymology. It will probably remain such for all eternity. The time depth we command is insufficient for getting to the bottom of things, but we need not worry: this blog was conceived expressly as a forum for discussing obscure words.

Image credits: (1) The Burning of the Houses of Parliament by Turner. Public domain via WikiArt. (2) Alla Nazimova in the 1922 film of A Doll’s House. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. John Larsson

    I think we have to await a lingual DNA-revolution to solve all the riddles of how the first words connected to man’s struggle for survival, meeting the special challenges outside Africa, came about, but you mention “hut”, where my first thoughts stroke “hood”?

  2. Masha Bell

    I find it interesting that the word ‘house’ has ended up with very similar pronunciations in English and German, unlike ‘brother, mother, sister, bread, milk, cheese’ and hundreds others.

  3. Michael Lamb

    “Late Latin hospitale is the neuter plural of the adjective hospitalis…” But hospitale is singular! This doesn’t look so much like an editorial problem. Am I missing something?

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