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Our habitat: one more etymology brought “home”

When it comes to origins, we know as little about the word home as about the word house. Distinguished American linguist Winfred P. Lehmann noted that no Indo-European terminology for even small settlements has been preserved in Germanic. Here an important distinction should be made. Etymologists have spent centuries searching for the ancient roots that spawned the vocabulary of our old and modern languages. To be sure, the reconstructed roots of the ancient Indo-Europeans never floated independently of whole nouns and verbs; they are only the common part of the words that according to our theories are related, but the established relations are probably real. Fierce debates about minutiae only show that modern scholars don’t know how to deal with the embarrassment of riches; yet one of the variants they have proposed may be correct—no small achievement. This is where Lehmann’s conclusion comes in. Let us suppose that the ancient root of the word house meant “to hide” (this is an example from the previous post). There were many non-Germanic words having this root, but none of them meant “house.” Although the requisite stock in trade was present, different languages produced different words from it.

Here is a short list that illustrates Lehmann’s point: burg, thorp (its German cognate Dorf “village” has much greater currency than Engl. thorp), yard, and the nouns that interest us most of all: house and home. One example to make the situation clear will suffice. Let us agree for the sake of argument that thorp is akin to a Hittite verb meaning “to collect.” If so, thorp was coined to designate a collection of houses. This makes good sense (regardless of whether the etymology is correct or wrong), but outside Germanic no word related to thorp means “village.” The development is local.

Haims, the Gothic noun allied to Engl. home, occurs in the texts twice. From Gothic, as noted in this blog many times, parts of a fourth-century translation of the New Testament have come down to us. Gothic is a Germanic language. Haims glossed two Greek nouns for “village” (as opposed to “town”). This makes the idea of what the Goths called home quite clear. Modern German Heimat means “homeland, native land.” No less instructive is Old Icelandic heimr “world,” though it could refer to a more narrow space. Old Engl. ham (with long a, as in Modern Engl. spa) also denoted a village, an estate, and only sometimes a house. The progression was evidently from “abode” to “one’s native place.” Perhaps the most general senses of home have been retained in two Gothic adjectives with prefixes: ana-haims “present,” that is, “at home” and af-haims “absent,” that is, “not at home” (each has been recorded only once and only in the plural). Dutch has a close analog: inheems “native, homebred” and uitheems “foreign” (heem “home”).

Home, Sweet Home
Home, Sweet Home

We can also remember the convoluted history of hamlet “small village” (no connection with Shakespeare’s hero). Old English had the noun hamm “a piece of pasture land; enclosure; house.” The Middle Low [= northern] German cognate of this word, with a diminutive suffix, made its way into French and returned to English with –et, a French diminutive suffix. (However, Modern French hameu does without any suffix!) The etymology of hamm is disputed, and one can sometimes read that it has been confused with ham, the word known from place names like Nottingham and Birmingham (the same in German: Mannheim, etc.) Allegedly, hamm is akin to hem “edge.” I have always thought that hamm had nothing to do with hem. The word, I believed, referred to a place smaller than a “ham”; to emphasize the difference, speakers shortened the vowel. Serious linguists treat such guesses with disdain, and I would not have dared to mention mine even for the purpose of self-immolation, but for a partial support of Skeat. He indulged in none of my semiotic fantasies, but he also wrote that ham and hamm are related. He was a man of rare common sense. Be that as it may, wherever we look, “home” returns us to a village or a piece of pastured land, apparently owned by a village community.

Today the words of the song “Home, Sweet Home” and “There is no place like home” epitomize the idea of home quite well, though clearly the beginning was less poetic. Yet one’s home, even if not “a castle,” is indeed “sweet,” and it may be that the idea of the “sweet” comfort associated with one’s dwelling is not recent. It has been suggested that home is allied to Irish cóim “pleasing; pleasant.” This connection is often ignored, but I have never seen it refuted. To repeat, “the place owned by the community; village; settlement” preceded the idea of satisfaction of communal living, but home was as dear to its inhabitants long ago as it is dear to us. Not a parallel but an instructive case is the Slavic word that means both “world” and “peace.” If we remember that Icelandic heimr means “world,” we will understand that, contrary to the dream of privacy in today’s overpopulated, overcrowded world, in the past being together, in a place open to the members of the community and to no one else, was the source of peace and pleasure.

In the post on house, I made much of the fact that hus was neuter. The word for “home” was feminine, but it showed a rare irregularity. In Gothic, haims belonged to one declension in the singular and to another in the plural. This oddity has a close analog in Greek, and it has often been commented upon but never explained. Perhaps the true etymology of home will be revealed only when we account for that irregularity and realize that the speakers of Old Germanic looked on one home and a multitude of homes as different entities. The branch of linguistics that deals with such phenomena is called grammatical stylistics. For comparison’s sake I can add that the etymology of wife remained hidden so long because researchers did not begin by asking the main question: How could a word meaning “woman” be neuter?

Two homeless children accused of having eaten their parents out of house and home.
Two homeless children accused of having eaten their parents out of house and home.

The old Indo-European root of home remains, as usual, a matter of dispute. At one time, Gothic haims was compared with a verb for “live” (compare the English verb while, as into while away the time). Although phonetically and semantically not implausible, today this etymology has no advocates. Most dictionaries state that haims is a cognate of Greek kóme “village” and reconstruct the root with the sense “to lie, to be situated.” (Other cognates of kóme are Latin civis “citizen” and Russian sem’ia “family,” the latter sounds similar elsewhere in Slavic.) However, the path from “lie” to “settlement” is far from obvious. Besides, for kóme to match haims, its o should have gone back to oi, and the possibility of this change has been challenged with seemingly good reason. Still other scholars consider the relationship between the word for “home” and Engl. hem “edge.” This idea is already familiar to us, though we looked at it from a different perspective. I’ll pass over some fanciful suggestions, even when they have eminent proponents. Hunting for Indo-European roots resembles chasing the rainbow: the shining arch exists but remains out of reach. Let us rather remember the main things: home is a local Germanic coinage (whether it has an ancient Indo-European root is interesting but not very important), speaking about one home and about many homes was marked in a non-trivial way, and on Germanic soil home probably had positive connotations already in the remote past.

Image credits: (1) Cover of sheet music for “Home! Sweet Home!” words by H.R. Bishop [and John Howard Payne], music by H.R. Bishop, Chicago: McKinley Music Co., c. 1914. Project Gutenberg. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Hänsel und Gretel (um 1940), Johann-Mithlinger-Siedlung, Raxstraße 7-27, Wien-Favoriten. Image by Buchhändler (2010). CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Michael Lamb

    “Modern French hameu does without any suffix” is more mystifying than “hameu” alone makes it: you yourself link ‘hamlet’ to the entry on the Oxford Dictionaries site, which says “Middle English: from Old French hamelet, diminutive of hamel ‘little village’; related to home (hám in Old English). ” But ‘hamelet’ is a double diminutive: ‘hamel’ is already a diminutive, as explained here, and this is the OF form of Modern French ‘hameau’. So I don’t see how you can say that the modern form does without any suffix.

  2. Michael Lamb

    Sorry, my last comment should read “as implied here” (by hamel ‘little village’).

  3. EugeenLV

    Latvian māja for home has a history that goes beyond the borders of Indo-European. It is related to Finno-Ugric maa earth which has also produced the same word in Estonian – maja. I suppose there could be some connection between Latin humus, homo and Germanic home. In Lithuanuan similarly žeme (Latvian zeme earth) is directly related to žmogus (man). So far we have Finno-Ugric earth related to Latvian home, Lithuanian earth related to a man. Are there some missing or midified words there? I suppose world, worm and earth are also etymoligically related.

    As for concept of “home sweet home” in Latvian we usually use plural of māja – mājas which gives the concept additional warmness.

  4. […] My statement that hameau does not have a suffix pertains to the modern form. Engl. hamlet has a pseudo-suffix: –let, as in ringlet or starlet, is a viable morpheme, but if we subtract the last three letters from hamlet, the stub will carry no meaning because hamlet is not a small ham. Nor would we have any luck with –et. But at least there is a feeling that hamlet contains two parts. The situation is familiar: some element (in the past, certainly a suffix) has attached itself to a sound complex that no longer has an independent existence. In Modern French hameau, there is not even anything to subtract. That is why I wrote that this word has no suffix. Its etymology is another matter, and I discussed it in my post. […]

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