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Etymology gleanings for August 2015

Linguists and polyglots

I received a question about the greatest etymologists’ active mastery of foreign languages. It is true, as our correspondent indicated, that etymologists have to cast their nets wide and refer to many languages, mainly old (the deader, the better). So would the masters of the age gone by have felt comfortable while traveling abroad, that is, not in the tenth but in the nineteenth century? Probably few of them spoke many languages. Skeat, to give one example, was educated in Classics. I assume that his Latin and Greek were active. There is sufficient evidence that he had excellent command of Old French. Unfortunately, most of our information on the lives of prominent linguists comes from obituaries, which give a survey of the deceased scholars’ achievements and very little else. Sometimes they mention the tragic details of their career (for example, Hermann Paul’s and Friedrich Kluge’s blindness for many years or the persecution of Jewish philologists like Sigmund Feist, Leo Spitzer, and Agathe Lasch, to mention only three, by the Nazis). As an old man, Skeat appended to his collection of essays A Student’s Pastime a rather long essay about his work but preferred not to indulge too much in reminiscences. Not everybody had a wife like Mary Wright, who after the death of Joseph Wright (the author of The English Dialect Dictionary) published a two-volume biography of her husband.

The great Scandinavian historical linguists between roughly the years 1860 and 1920 usually studied at German universities and wrote many works in German. This holds for Sophus Bugge, Alf Torp, Hjalmar Falk, and Adolf Noreen. By contrast, all Elof Hellquist’s works appeared in Swedish. This also holds to a very great extent for Axel Kock. The Germans, such as Kluge and his contemporaries, usually could not speak English. The famous exception was Eduard Sievers. He was married to a Scottish woman, and they spoke English at home. His phonetic ear and power of imitating sounds filled people with admiration; he probably had little or no accent in English. The distinguished Dutch etymologist Johannes Franck, a German, was apparently not fluent in Dutch, though as a philologist he knew the language and its history like few others.

Jacob Grimm learned Modern French during Napoleon’s occupation of Germany. I am not sure whether Antoine Meillet, who felt equally at home in Greek, Gothic, Armenian, and Old Slavic (to him they were mere “dialects” of Indo-European), spoke any of them besides French and (probably) Latin. Roman Jakobson spoke Russian and French as a child. His Czech, which became his main means of communication after he left Russia, was excellent, and so was his German. English took center stage in his life after he fled to the United States from the German-occupied Czechoslovakia. He wrote it beautifully but retained a heavy accent. N. S. Trubetzkoy’s education included French, German, and Italian. Yet he could not even read English: for the publications in that language he needed the help of his wife. So this is how matters stand. Many years ago, I started a project titled “Great Linguists,” and I am sorry that its only outcome has been a series of public lectures and a huge box labeled “Personalia” in my office.

At present, the situation has changed. Most linguists, wherever they live, can now speak at least some English, but native speakers of English are seldom fluent in more than the one foreign language they study professionally (for example, German, Swedish, Russian, Spanish, or French). Even fewer can read any Slavic language. However, etymologists usually obtain a smattering of the languages they cite.

I have only a short postscript to what has been written here. In American usage, the word linguist has supplanted polyglot. Occasionally I hear remarks like the following: “You are a linguist, aren’t you? So is my daughter. She had two years of French and went to a Spanish summer camp. You may like to meet her.” I usually demur.

Jean-François Champollion, the father of Egyptology (1790-1832). He was a polyglot and a linguist.
Jean-François Champollion, the father of Egyptology (1790-1832). He was a polyglot and a linguist.

Spelling reform

Masha Bell has written that, given spell-checkers and smartphones, most people can now produce tolerably literate texts on their own. In her view, the reform is needed mainly because it will facilitate teaching people to read English. This may be true from a practical point of view, but I have some trouble sharing her attitude. Nowadays, we can live happily while knowing nothing about a lot of things. Even the multiplication table is a useless burden on memory; calculators do math better and faster than people. Likewise, geography can be dispensed with; engine drivers and pilots know where to go without asking us for instructions. Older literature is another irritant: too many words, too many pages, and, in general, who cares? So what is left? Technology, medicine, food science, and political activism? English spelling is more archaic than serfdom and should be reformed because it is antiquated to the degree of being stupid.

Stephen Bett has a few questions and a few suggestions. For example, should we spell speak like speech? In principle, yes. The distinction between ea and ee is a nuisance. And what about scent and sent? No doubt, scent is a bad joke, and so is ascetic. English does not need the letter c, except perhaps in ck (but I am not sure). Cat can be kat (like kitten), especially because we do have Catherine and Kate, along with Kathy and Cathy. The problem is how to implement the reform. That is why I keep repeating that the public should be inured to the change by infinitesimal degrees: first the most innocuous novelties, such as will hardly raise protest, then slightly more conspicuous alterations, and so on. This is the way the boa constrictor deals with its prey: every time the victim breathes out the space in the chest becomes smaller and the coil gets a tiny bit tighter. At some moment, no space for breathing remains. Once people are taught to appreciate our efforts, they may require more radical changes than we today dare propose. But at present we are exactly where we were 150 year ago (with minor progress in American spelling) and have no reason to rejoice.

A proposed logo for Spelling Reform. Try to guess which part of the group represents the reformers and which resembles the public.
A proposed logo for Spelling Reform. Try to guess which part of the group represents the reformers and which resembles the public.

Smaller issues

I have received many questions and comments. Some need long answers. I will address them later and devote one more post to bad and other b-d words. Today I’ll comment only on a few minor queries.

Bar “rod, barrier” and spar “pole”

Affinity between these words has often been suggested, and from the formal point of view the picture looks good: the senses match, and s mobile is not a problem. But if I were to write an entry on spar, I would keep it separate from bar for the reason to which I have so often referred in this blog. Since bar is a word of unknown etymology, it is better not to use it in any reconstruction involving other hard words.

Engl. spoke (noun) and Swedish spak “lever

Our correspondent wondered why in my discussion of spoke I did not mention Swedish spak “lever.” Alongside Swedish spak, we find Norwegian spak(e) and Danish spag(e). I left them out of consideration because all of them are loanwords. Their source is Middle Low German spake, a cognate of Modern High German Speiche “spoke.” Since for “spoke” the Scandinavian languages had a different word, the borrowing retained only the sense “rod; lever” rather than “spoke.” The noun used in English, German, and other languages (spoke, Speiche, etc.) is West Germanic and has no old cognates in Scandinavian.


This question came from Minnesota. Though I have heard it many times, I still have no answer. It seems that all over the United States ramp means a slope or an inclined plane joining two different levels (this is the definition all dictionaries give). But in Minnesota ramp designates what everybody else calls parking garage. Why? The incomparably rich Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) does not have an entry on ramp, which means that even the editors of this encyclopedia of Americanisms missed the distinction that bothers “Minnesotans abroad.” It is not too hard to find a label for such a phenomenon. We are dealing with an association by contiguity: since a ramp is a slope leading to a parking garage, the entire structure also began to be called ramp. The real question is not how such a change could occur but why it occurred only in a small part of North America. My search in books on American usage and linguistic atlases yielded no result. If some specialists in linguistic geography can shed light on this question, I am sure that at least one ramp in Minnesota will be named after this person.

Brave and bereave

Several letters from a German correspondent deal with the semantics of brave and barbarous. People sometimes run into old posts, and it is good to know that those essays are not as evanescent as one might suspect. I’ll comment on only one part of the letters. Bereave (that is, bereave) cannot be allied to brave. The root –reave goes back to –raub, and its diphthong is incompatible with –rave in brave. Be– in bereave is a prefix, so that it has nothing to do with b- in brave or in barbarous.

Vowel length in Old Engl. maþþum “treasure

Indeed, there are obvious arguments for a short vowel in this word. But the origin of the long consonant is unknown, while the word’s etymology poses no problems: Gothic maiþms “present, gift,” etc. Whether the long vowel was shortened before a long consonant already in Old English is anybody’s guess. Therefore, conservative reference books give a in the root length.

To be continued.

Image credits: (1) Epicrates Cenchria Cenchria. Photo by KaroH. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Portrait of Jean-François Champollion by Léon Cogniet (1831). Louvre Museum. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    Thank you for answering my queries.

    Linguist ‘polyglot’ is dated by the OED3 to 1582, linguist ‘expert in languages’ to 1605, so the word has been polysemous essentially since the beginning. Professional linguists must learn to put up with this. (Polyglot itself is first cited in 1650.)

    Jakobson was apparently quite the polyglot: this story is from Language Log:

    As I [Mark Liberman] heard the story, he was giving a lecture at Columbia on Eastern European folk epics. He decided to lecture in Bulgarian — one of the couple of dozen languages that he spoke fluent Russian in. One of the audience members raised a hand and protested, in English, that most of the audience did not know Bulgarian. Jakobson’s response, also in English: “You are linguist, no? So listen, and try to understand.”

  2. Clint W

    Parking structures are “parking ramps” in my native and current home, Iowa, as well. My three years in western North Carolina taught me to use the term “parking deck” there. “Parking garage” sounds almost foreign to me, though it’s easy enough to figure out from its components.

  3. Masha Bell

    I agree that English spelling is in dire need of reform. But after six centuries of no concerted effort to make it better, apart from the random dropping of surplus endings during the English Civil War of 1642-9, getting the English-speaking world even just to give some thought to the matter is a huge challenge.

    There is now so much wrong with it that even deciding what changes to promote is quite difficult. Starting with a few innocuous ones might seem promising. But one objection often raised against spelling reform in the UK is that the changes made in the US have made no noticeable difference to speed of literacy acquisition. In other words, what guarantees are there that any spelling reform would be worth the trouble? – Most people are not aware that the American changes were aimed mainly at making US spelling different, even if they worsened things for learners, as with –ize endings.

    The least offensive changes would probably be those which reduce the variety of spellings for unstressed vowels in word endings (e.g. flattEn, abandOn, trunchEOn, certAIn).They would help adult spellers quite a bit too, but make very little difference to the literacy progress of beginners. I have identified and explained the spellings which would help the latter most of all on my ImprovingEnglishSpelling blog, but would go along with anything that has a chance of getting the reform train moving.

  4. Bartosz Kołodziej

    Dear Mr. Liberman,
    I first started to read your blog a few years ago, when I was a teenager. I’ve read it ever since and it’s always been very (really) informative and interesting, as well as witty. I am a student from Poland and unfortunately I study medicine, so I never hope to have even a fraction of the knowledge you have. Nevertheless, most of what I know about etymology I learnt from your blog and I know enough thanks to you not to be taken in by folk etymologies, and I suppose that’s something.

    I first became interested in etymology when I started to learn German as a teenager and I noticed how German “ss” and “b” corresponded to English “t” and “v” in many words. I was absolutely amazed by my discovery and very proud of myself, and I wondered whether anyone else had noticed those things before me. To my dissatisfaction, it turned out they had.

    I can’t of course add anything of value to what is being discussed on your blog, so I only wanted to thank you. Although I do want to ask about something: I don’t recall your ever citing words from or referring to less common Germanic languages, such as Faroese or Afrikaans. Is it because they are too similar to Icelandic and Dutch and don’t offer much useful information which couldn’t also be found in these two? And what about Wymysorys/Vilamovian, the almost extinct language in southern Poland? Is it in any way particularly interesting from the point of view of Germanic etymology?

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