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The sins of my etymological past and other people’s sins: Part 1

This blog was launched on 1 March 2006, four or even five editors ago (to paraphrase Kurt Vonnegut’s statement about his wives), and is now in the twelfth year of its existence. It has been appearing every Wednesday since that date, and today’s number is 587. At the beginning (perhaps I should even say in the beginning), the format of the essays was not clear to me (or to anyone), and the initial agreement was to limit the text to one computer page. Later, the standard length of the installment doubled, and still later illustrations appeared. (Hardly anyone ever comments on our picture gallery, and yet finding them is a full time job for me and the editors.) Quite a few posts I wrote in 2006 and 2007 I would very much like to rewrite, partly because of the journalistic experience I have gained and partly because today I usually know more about the subjects I chose at that time. On 8 March 2006, I discussed the origin of the word sin. Since 2006, in connection with my research into the origin of Icelandic sagas and the working of the medieval mind, I have read hundreds of pages about truth and lie in old and medieval societies and, no longer limited by approximately 600 words, would like to return to that subject. All of us are sinners, so that the topic may interest not only those who care about etymology and historical linguistics.

The word sin is old in English, but its present day sense “transgression against divine law, offense against God” appeared only with Christianity. Since literacy came to the “barbarians” with the conversion, the extant texts have most instances of sin only in its now familiar context, but the old state of affairs is not entirely lost. In the Old English poem Beowulf, the alliterating phrase synn and sacu “wrongdoing and strife” appears, and it has analogs elsewhere in Germanic. “Sin,” it appears has always meant “offensive act, crime,” though in the secular rather than religious sense. The cognates of sin have d or its reflex (continuation), as evidenced by German Sünde, but this d was not part of the root. Especially characteristic is Old Icelandic syn or synn, usually believed to be a borrowing from West Germanic. The word was feminine and meant “denial,” not “crime.” Its plural meant “trouble.”

Syn and sacu.

In the thirteenth century, an Icelandic book called Edda appeared. (This is the so-called Prose Edda, different from the Poetic Edda, a collection of mythological and heroic songs, also produced in the thirteenth century.) The Prose Edda is traditionally attributed to the great historian and politician Snorri Sturluson. Part One of the book contains the main pagan myths of medieval Scandinavia. One chapter offers a short catalog of female divinities. It looks odd to the modern reader. The impression is that Snorri derived some words of his language from the names of the goddesses, rather than going in the opposite direction. The passage that interests us runs as follows: “The eleventh [goddess] is Syn; she guards the door of the hall and shuts it against those who are not to enter. She is also appointed defending counsel at trials in cases she wishes to refute; hence the saying ‘Syn is brought forward’ when anyone denies accusation.”

To us Syn is a personified abstraction. To Snorri she was the “begetter” of the abstraction. However, his attitude need not bother us. The relevant fact is that syn means “denial of an accusation,” rather than “crime, transgression.” This reversal is of paramount importance. First, we notice that sin (and the same holds for its cognates) is a legal term. Second, we look around and find the least expected cognates of sin, syn, and the rest. One of them is Engl. sooth, as in forsooth, soothsayer, etc. (The word sooth means “truth).” At one time, the root had –an– in the middle. Later, n was lost, a was lengthened, to compensate for this loss, and ā [long a)] changed to ō [long o]. Hence the spelling oo in sooth; the value of the present day vowel is due to the Great Vowel Shift, as in school, moon, and others. The verb soothe likewise meant “declare to be true; confirm, encourage; please or flatter, gloss over,” and, only beginning with the seventeenth century, “mollify”; still later, the modern meaning “to assuage” became the usual one.

Old Icelandic sanna also meant “assert, prove”; the closest cognate of sooth was Icelandic sannr. Gothic sunja (possibly a noun), recorded once in the feminine, meant the same. (The Gothic Bible was written in the fourth century.) We feel totally confused: How can the words for “true, truth” be related to sin? The plot thickens when we learn that Icelandic sannr meant both “true” and “guilty.” But the crushing blow comes with the discovery of Latin sunt, the third person plural of the word “to be”; German sind is close enough. Our least trouble is the vowel alternation: a in sannr and u in sunt (y in syn is ü, that is, the umlaut of u; the sound that caused umlaut is no longer present in this form). The vowels a and u alternate by ablaut, the process referred to and even discussed more than once in this blog; see, for example, the gleanings of January 2017).

Thus, we confront­­ the knot: “being, existent,” “true,” and “guilty.” Etymologists have been trying to unravel this knot for nearly two centuries, and, on the whole, they were successful (or let us say, not quite unsuccessful). I will report on their endeavors next week, but a few preliminary remarks are due today. We look upon truth as a set of facts or statements corresponding to reality. In the remote past, this view of truth must, naturally, also have existed, but the concept of being was inextricably connected with the idea of proving one’s innocence, or denying guilt (“sin”). The same root s + a vowel + n(t) served the purpose of uniting “existence,” “truth,” and “guilt” very well.

Stick, stock, and stuck. Nothing illustrates ablaut better than stock photos.
Stick, stock, and stuck. Nothing illustrates ablaut better than stock photos.

Ablaut took care of differentiation, as it did in all other cases. The “real” root was snt. It is hard to show the workings of the extremely efficient mechanism of ablaut in English, where mainly verbs follow its model, as in riseroserisen, bind—bound, comecame, and in pairs like sit—set and lielay. Late sound changes have so disfigured most words’ initial shape that the original scheme is hard to follow. However, stick and stock are an example of the same mechanism (the nouns are related by ablaut). I am almost tempted to write stick—stock—stuck. In German, the picture is clearer. Take the verb trinken “to drink.” Its principal parts are trinkentrank—(ge)trunken. Each form represents a certain grade of ablaut, here i, a, and u, and from the last two we have nouns meaning “a drink”: Trank and Trunk. Engl. drunk and the full participle drunken resemble getrunken. Especially elegant is the so-called zero grade: compare Engl. ken and Latin gnostic. There is no vowel between g and n: this is zero in all its beauty. The Indo-Europeans fought for their innocence with the sound complex snt. Next week we’ll see how they progressed from “sinning” to being (without quotes).

The original sin. But the forbidden fruit is unlikely to have been an apple.
The original sin. But the forbidden fruit is unlikely to have been an apple.

Image credits: (1) “Playful Tussle” by Ritesh Man Tamrakar, CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr. (2) “Walking Stick” by Wellcome Images, CC BY 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (3) “Matthiola longipetala” by E rulez, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons. (4) “stuck in the mud” by devra, CC BY 2.0 via Flickr. (4) “Adam and Eve” by Lucas Cranach the Elder, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. Featured image credit: “God admonishing Adam and Eve” by Domenichino, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Katherine Sanders

    I’m one reader who has always appreciated the photos and wondered how they make their way to your text. Thanks for the insight, and , Happy Belated Birthday Professor Lieberman!

  2. Maggie Catambay

    The photos are delightful! I always enjoy your blog posts and pictures open up new ideas about the topic.
    This one on “sin” is especially interesting, so I’m looking forward to next week’s blog!


  3. Justin T Holl Jr

    I look forward to every Wednesday for the new entry and have since the beginning. Thanks for the wonderful blog.

  4. Elmira Gutieva

    I also like to thank for accusomising readers to the scientific insightfulness and elegance of the narrative. Besides, confess that I’d like to plagiarize the idea of illustrating ablaut

  5. Patricia

    I am coming late to this post, but am grateful for it. Working on some Old English plant names and find that periwinkle is sin grene, which I would now understand to be true green.

  6. Kent RadCliff

    We think we speak and know a language, until we encounter a true, not sinful, scholar and teacher! I’m grateful…

Comments are closed.