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Still sinning, part 2

Today I am beginning where I left off last week. As we have seen, Old Icelandic sannr meant both “true” and “guilty.” Also, the root of this word can be detected in the word for “being” (Latin sunt, etc.). Many ingenious explanations of this strange symbiosis exist. In what follows I will have to repeat some of the statements made a week ago.

Guiltless and not guilty.
Guiltless and not guilty.

One thing is probably incontestable: we are dealing with legal, rather than philosophical, notions. What is truth and what is a lie? It has been noticed that in the Indo-European languages and even beyond, words for “truth” are always derived, while words for “lie” are not. English is no exception: truth is derived from true (-th is a suffix, as in length, width, and breadth), while lie is a simplex. I assume that lie denoted some basic concept, while truth was understood as the opposite of lie (a curious reversal of what seems natural to us). It may also not be a coincidence that the etymology of the words for “truth” is usually transparent, while the etymology of lie is often (and definitely so in Germanic) obscure or even impenetrable.

Engl. lie has easily recognizable cognates everywhere in Indo-European (similar form, similar meaning), but the words for “true” differ from language to language. It seems that they were coined or at least acquired their meaning later. For instance, the Latin for “true” is verus (compare Engl. very, verily, verification, etc.). The root of its Slavic congener, familiar from the female name Vera (“faith”) means “to believe.” Thus, in Slavic, “true” means “believable, credible, trustworthy.”

Even though words for “truth” and “lying” were initially legal terms, “legal” does not refer to litigation only. It describes the individual’s entire complex of relations to society. An illuminating example is pravda, the Russian word for “truth,” known to many from the name of the central newspaper of the Soviet era. In older Russian, it also meant “legal code.” But why did Old Icelandic sannr mean both “true” and “guilty”? Words tend to develop opposite or incompatible meanings, because ambiguity is inherent in a good deal of what we say. Thus, compromise refers to an agreement (“we reached a compromise”: everybody is happy), but, when you are compromised, the sense of compromise is negative. Gratuitous means “requiring no payment” (which is excellent: compare gratuitous medical assistance), but gratuitous cruelty is not such a good thing. There is no love lost between them used to mean “they are friends” (of course: no love has been lost between them!), but the idiom was misinterpreted (“so little love exists between them that there is nothing to lose: they are enemies”). Latin altus means both “high” and “deep”: everything depends on the direction of one’s gaze. Something along such lines must have happened in the history of sannr and its cognates. The defendant was guilty because he had to disprove the accusation of guilt. By successfully disproving it, he emerged as someone revealing the truth. The most important Icelandic verb related to sannr is synja “to deny.” “Able to deny” meant “true.”

No love lost between them.

What then is a lie? This looks like another legal term. Perhaps the most revealing cognate of lie is Latvian lùgt “hidden.” But, in order to understand what a lie is, we should return to medieval Scandinavia. In one of the best-known mythological songs of The Poetic Edda (which is a collection of such songs), the great god Thor (Þórr) wakes up and discovers that his hammer has been stolen. Without the hammer the gods are defenseless and will be conquered by the giants. Loki, another god, flies to Giantland, the place where the hammer, most likely, will be found, and, when he returns home, Thor begs him to share the news while he is still in the air, because, as he explains, he who sits often forgets the story, and he who lies tends to deal in lies. In Icelandic, the pun on lies—lies, though less clear than in English, is also unmistakable. The implication of Thor’s request must be that, if the messenger waits too long, he will forget some details and the information will no longer be fully reliable. From one tale to another this sense of “lie” comes to the foreground with great regularity: lie means “unreliable or unproven information” or “the information shown to be false,” rather than deliberate deception.

This is Thor's hammer Mjöllnir. It keeps the giants at bay. No lies about it can be tolerated.
This is Thor’s hammer Mjöllnir. It keeps the giants at bay. No lies about it can be tolerated.

This then is the picture, as it emerges from the study of Old Germanic texts and institutions. Life looked like a gigantic court. The laws were numerous, and litigation was unceasing. In this respect, we are neither better nor worse off than those who inhabited the European continent a millennium ago. Everyone was a potential defendant. Accused of guilt, this person denied it and revealed the truth. That is why related words designated truth, guilt, and denial. Sometimes even the same word combined both meanings. Old Engl. syn, mentioned last week in the phrase syn and sacu, meant “fault, crime”; “denial” was one of its senses. Outside English, the cognates of the same noun syn, when coupled with the word for “need,” meant “an excuse for not appearing at the court proceedings.” After the conversion, the cognates of syn were chosen all over the Germanic-speaking world to designate “sin.” The new meaning ousted the previous ones. The original syn/sin came to an end.

What remains to be understood is where “being, existing” comes in. Such abstract notions as “being” are hardly ever initial. The older a language is, the more obviously it combines a highly complicated grammatical system (everything has to be differentiated: the singular from the plural, the plural from the dual; the first person from the third, and so forth) with the paucity of abstract notions. Its vocabulary may have numerous color words but no word for “color.” The branch of scholarship called anthropological linguistics studies exactly such things. In the remote past, “to be” also had a more concrete referent: it must have meant approximately “to answer for one’s actions.” At that time, no one would have coined the phrase the intolerable lightness of being.

We should not disregard a problem in this reconstruction. In its treatment of guilt and being, Latin presents a close analog of Germanic. Consequently, the terms we treat as Germanic might have acquired their meaning under the influence of Latin, because the medieval Germanic codes known to us are relatively late and often reflect the system learned from the Romans. But the picture will remain the same, regardless of the circumstances in which it came into “being.” According to an ingenious idea, the Latin-Germanic situation resembles a game, when people say to somebody: “You are It!” The result is both “you exist” and “you are guilty.” Perhaps there is no need to be so concrete.

As a postscript, I may add that in the Old English phrase syn and sacu, sacu means approximately the same as syn (“crime, contention”; its Icelandic cognate means “attack”—the whole is a typical alliterating tautological binomial of the safe and sound type). In the modern language, this word also acquired a much more general sense: for example, German Sache means “thing.” The only trace of sacu in English is sake, as in the phrase for the sake of, but even this phrase may be a borrowing from Scandinavian. And this is the end of the short series on living in and without sin.

Image credits: (1) “Guilty Eye Up Guy Look Baby Really Cute Sad” Public Domain via Max Pixel (2) “High School Boxing Match Oak Ridge” 4305 DOE photo by Ed Westcott, Public Domain via Flickr. (3) “Thor’s hammer, Bredsättra, Öland” by Unknown, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. Featured image credit: “The instance Sinodal`niy of Pravda Ruskaya page 1” by Греков Б.Д., Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    Modern meaning for Latvian “lūgt” is to ask, request or pray as in the name of a mantis (dievlūdzējs). Unfortunately our existing known dictionaries go back only up to 17th century and we cannot know for sure semantic shifts previously but lūgt could be related to bending, avoiding something. For lying there is a word derived from milling (melot – lie , maldināt – deceive). I would have another question on related of Russian “sud” to sinning as old Slavic word is proposed as origin for Latvian punishment (sods). Modern sense shifted somehow from 17th century sods, sodība (as used e.g. for the last judgement). Parallel forms of another words “modrs” (alert) and “mundrs” (lively) would allow to link sods with *sundas. It is possible to derive grēks (sin) from local stock as well but traditionally those are treated as Old Slavic borrowings. Those could also be sins of 17th century dictionaries.

  2. Yves Rehbein

    Writing this before I even finished reading to point out my faux-etymology for ger. “Lüge”: Compare “Luke” (window, lense, perhaps eye, cf. look). Someone who took a look and gained forbidden knowledge was accused of being nosey, and to the common citizen it must have seemed as if the only good reason to punish the sharing of incriminating knowledge would be if it was provably wrong, so we got “lügen” from “luken”. Contrast this with ger. “schummeln” (shmoo) and “schmulen” (not shmoo, perhaps glean or better peep). Looks can be deceiving as they say, so perhaps there’s another side of the story.

    Call me a liar if you will, my inability to leave a good argument left on the wayside is my only weakness. Maybe I’m being left handed about it, but I won’t leave you down, if we can lay this hypothesis to relax (rest).

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