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If “ifs” and “ands” were pots and pans….

If things happened as they are suggested in the title above, I would not have been able to write this post, and, considering that 2016 has just begun, it would have been a minor catastrophe. People of all ages and, as they used to say, from all walks of life want to know something about word origins, but they prefer to ask questions about “colorful” words (slang). By contrast, our indispensable conjunctions don’t seem to attract anyone’s attention, though and, but, if, whether, and so forth have a long and intriguing history. (Let me mention in parentheses that of all the words I have investigated, yet was the hardest.)

You may remember that “The old Grey Donkey, Eeyore, stood by himself in a thistly corner of the forest… and thought about things. Sometimes he thought sadly to himself, ‘Why’ and sometimes he thought ‘Wherefore’ and sometimes he thought ‘Inasmuch which’—and sometimes he didn’t quite know what he was thinking about.” Smart creatures ruminate on such questions only when they lose their tails (and this is of course what happened to Eeyore in Chapter 4). Unlike them, etymologists ponder similar problems every day, for thereby hangs their tale.

Inasmuch as…. What an unwieldy, ugly creation, even worse than whereas! Another equally graceless monster is notwithstanding. The Grey Donkey might have asked: “Not with whom standing near what?” The briefest look at inasmuch and notwithstanding will suggest that they cannot be old. As a matter of fact, they don’t even have to be fully native. Thus, notwithstanding owes its existence to a French model, and so does because (from by cause). Nonetheless and its inordinately long German analog nicthsdestoweniger are even more frightful. However, we need not tarry in the freak museum of conjunctions and misshapen adverbs. Of greater importance is the fact that subordinating conjunctions are in general late additions to the Germanic languages. One can say: “She came too late, and, unfortunately, I could not ask her anything” or “She came too late, so that, unfortunately, I could not ask her anything.” In the first sentence, the two parts are connected by means of a coordinating conjunction (and). This type of syntax is called parataxis, and children, in describing events, prefer it: “John saw me, and he said he will beat me up, and I said ‘no way’, and we fought, etc.” “When John saw me, he said, etc.” sounds more literary and “sophisticated”; the use of subordinating conjunctions (and, as a result, of subordinate clauses) is called hypotaxis.

A classic type of parataxis
A classic type of parataxis

In the Germanic languages, ramified subordination developed late. A classic example of nascent hypotaxis has been retained by Old Icelandic. That language had two conjunctions for all types of subordination: er and the less frequent sem. Er functioned as a jack of all trades. Therefore, in translating a saga into Modern English, one has to guess whether, from our point of view, it meant which, when, how, because, though, if, or whatever. Although his indeterminacy did not bother the speakers, characteristically and perhaps deservedly, er did not continue into Modern Icelandic.

We can wonder how those people managed to understand one another, but we don’t notice similar cases in our own language. Take Modern Engl. as: “She smiled at me as [when] she passed,” “As [because] this task is too hard for you, we have to think of something else,” “The examples are as follows,” “You know it as well as I do,” “As often happens in early childhood…” Since is only slightly better: “Many years have passed since we met,” “Since you cannot do it, I’ll have to hire someone else.” In German, wenn means ‘when’ and ‘if’. A fragment like wenn sie kommt can mean “when she comes” or “if she comes.” No one complains. On the other hand, we sometimes have subtle distinctions that hardly anybody needs. What is the difference between for and because? Old grammars taught that for is a coordinating conjunction and needs a colon before it (“I cannot answer your question: for I never studied French”), while because denotes subordination and, if it requires a punctuation mark, it should be a comma—a classic example of an artificial rule. Anyway, for is a preposition (compare forever)!

Jack of all trades: the beginning of hypotaxis
Jack of all trades: the beginning of hypotaxis

Today I’ll touch on the history of the conjunction if, a short word, and shortness never augurs well in etymological research (one has too little space for guesswork and maneuvering). Old English had gif (pronounced as yif); it lost its first sound only in the Middle period. Gothic used two similar conjunctions: one began with j- (jabai “if, although”), the other did not (ibai ~ iba “lest, that…not,” a word that implied a negative answer). It is hard to imagine that jabai and ibai were not congeners or that they did not occasionally get into each other’s way. Nibai, the negative counterpart of ibai, meant “if not, unless, except.” The Old High German forms were iba, oba, and ube; finally, Old Icelandic had ef. From our perspective, all of them meant “if.” As a rule, when monosyllabic and dissyllabic forms of the same word coexist and there is good reason to believe that they are allied, the shorter forms are the result of abridgment. Consequently, the earliest conjunction probably contained two syllables and was closer to the Gothic form. Its meaning seems to have fluctuated between “if” and “whether.” Ob, the Modern German continuation of oba, means “whether,” not “if”; as we have seen, the German word for if is wenn, the same as for “when.” The vowels in it perhaps alternated depending on stress conditions.

But why should a word like ibai have meant “if”? Old Icelandic had the noun if ~ ef and ifi ~ efi “doubt,” and it corresponds perfectly to the meaning of if. However, there is a strong suspicion that it was derived from that conjunction, rather than the other way around. Or perhaps it has an etymology of its own. As I never tire of repeating, one obscure word cannot shed light on another word of undiscovered origin. It can come as a surprise that such short words as yet and if at one time consisted of two parts. As regards yet, we can be almost sure that –t was at one time added to ye-. In all likelihood, a similar development underlies the history of if. Its i- can be a pronominal root (that is, a root occurring in pronouns), as in it (also a two-morpheme form!), whereas ba-, as in Gothic and Old High German, is, according to the great German philologist Karl Brugmann, akin to both (from Old Engl. ba-th; its root was ba-, with long a, pronounced as in the modern noun spa). If so, ibai meant something like “these both”; hence the possibility of choice and the emerging sense “if.” But less convoluted approaches to ibai also exist. One of them calls our attention to Slavic and Baltic ba ~ bo, a particle with a broad range of meanings, from “yes” to an exclamation of surprise. Kindred forms have been attested in several languages, and its Germanic cognate looks like a possible candidate for the second element of ibai. In any case, the English conjunction is the result of the curtailment of a longer, dissyllabic word.

If not you, who will? Do you read and comment on the blog ‘The Oxford Etymologist?’
If not you, who will? Do you read and comment on the blog ‘The Oxford Etymologist?’

Does any of the iffy solutions offered above look probable? Yes, at least partly. “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you….” What else is left for a historical linguist who dissects the shortest words in order to reassemble them and emerges with a meaning like “if”?

Image credits: (1) Château d’If in Marseille (1890-1905). Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Two yoked oxen (1860-1900). Public domain via Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. (3) Very busy businesswoman. (c) jesadaphorn via iStock. (4) I want you for U.S. Army : nearest recruiting station. James Montgomery Flagg, c. 1917. Public domain via Library of Congress.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    Note that if and whether are still interchangeable in Modern English in the context of subordinated yes/no questions: “I don’t know if/whether he is coming”, where the second is more bookish.

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