Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

Two posts on “sin”: a sequel

This sequel has been inspired by a letter from a colleague and by a comment.

Sin all over the world

The colleague who wrote me a letter is a specialist in Turkic and a proponent of Nostratic linguistics. He mentioned the Turkic root syn-, which, according to him, can mean “to test, prove; compete; prophesy; observe; body, image, outward appearance,” and wondered whether, within the framework of Nostratic linguistics, this root can be compared with the root of Engl. sin. At least some of the senses listed above (“body, image, outward appearance”) remind one of “be,” while the others bear some resemblance to “guilt,” discussed in some detail in my posts. For obvious reasons, I can have no opinion about a word in the language family I have never studied. I could only consult the books in my office (Allan S. Bomhard and John C. Kern, The Nostratic Macrofamily…, 1994, and V. M. Illich-Svitych’s major work (Opyt…, 1971), which has an index, published in 1974. Neither sin/syn nor the concepts covered by those roots turn up there. However, I thought that saying something about the nature of the question, that is, about Nostratic linguistics, may be of interest to our readers. I don’t have to go into detail, because Wikipedia offers a highly professional article on Nostratic, and will only touch on the main principle.

It has always been known that some languages are related. The anthologized examples are Swedish and Norwegian, German and Dutch, Italian and Spanish, Russian and Ukrainian. The existence of more distant relationships was also clear to linguists long ago. In the eighteenth century, the term Scythian languages was coined. It did not mean what it means today, for at that time it partly overlapped with what is now designated as Indo-European. The school-text division of the Eurasian languages into families and of families into groups goes back to the nineteenth century. Some families are huge; the largest of them is Indo-European, while others, such as Semitic, Paleo-Siberian, and Finno-Ugric, are smaller. To establish the relationship, linguists compare grammatical forms and some basic words, especially kin terms and the first numerals.

The beginning is hard to reconstruct. For example, how did the Indo-European family come about? Was it once a solid language that, as time went on, split into dialects? Does a picture of a tree with branches, twigs, and leaves (a putative model of Proto-Indo-European) give justice to the initial state? Or have there always been dialects that interacted like overlapping waves? Who spoke the most ancient form of Indo-European and where? How did the early forms of it spread over such an enormous territory? Those questions have never been answered to everybody’s satisfaction. Since words tend to change beyond recognition, the especially important forms for reconstruction are the most ancient ones. But in the remote past, there was no literacy. Therefore, we depend on relatively late evidence. Besides, figuratively speaking, some languages were recorded only “the day before yesterday.” If we disregard the runes, the earliest written text in Germanic goes back to the fourth century AD (Gothic). English was recorded much later. In the past, the ancestors of the speakers of Indo-European were nomads, which means that language contact was the order of the day. That is why so-called language unions were formed, and  we often do not know whether a certain word is related to another one or is a borrowing of it.

The less we know, the easier it is to indulge in breathtakingly bold speculation. Scholars often have clear notions of what happened five thousand years ago but are at a loss when they have to explain some process in Middle or early Modern English. The lay public and journalists usually prefer daring hypotheses and sensational theories. Yet this does not mean that such theories are wrong by definition! Thus, quite some time ago, attempts were made to show that the Indo-European and the Semitic languages are related. Some similarities between them are beyond doubt. The question is whether those are due to common origin or borrowing (contact). Still later, some scholars went farther and posited the relationship of very many languages of Eurasia and Africa. This is how the Nostratic hypothesis was born.

The names of the founders are Holger Pedersen (a Dane) and Alfredo Trombetti (an Italian). Trombetti’s works are rather hard to get in the United States, but Holger Pedersen’s publications are easily available. The Nostratic idea owes its second lease on/of life to a group of Moscow linguists. Its founder was Vladislav Illich-Svitich, whose early death in a car accident (he was killed by a drunken driver) was an irreparable loss to historical linguistics. Fortunately, his school in Moscow, Israel, and the United States is very much alive. We should agree that, if even the genesis of Indo-European is highly problematic, the history of an allegedly united family that encompasses a much greater number of languages from North Africa to Korea and Japan is much harder to present in a convincing way. For comparison, I can recommend those interested in this subject to consult the entry “Altaic languages” in Wikipedia. Part of it is devoted to the furious controversy over the existence of the so-called Altaic family. In the late nineteen-sixties and early seventies, I witnessed the acrimonious debate on this question and do not cherish those memories. Finally, look up Joseph Greenberg. His work is highly relevant to our subject.

Holger Pedersen and Alfredo Trombetti
Holger Pedersen and Alfredo Trombetti

So did the Nostratic family exist? One finds ardent advocates, contemptuous opponents, and quite a few scholars who sit on the fence. Caution is either a virtue or a vice, depending on the observer’s point of view. Hence the answer to my correspondent can be neither “yes” nor “no.” Those who reject the Nostratic hypothesis will find the very question useless. But if some of the leading proponents of the Nostratic idea read this blog, it will be interesting to know their opinion. Let me repeat: it is about Turkic syn and its problematic Indo-European analog.

Sin in Slavic and Latvian

The Russian for “sin” is grekh. Its cognates in Slavic sound similar, but its posited cognates in the rest of Indo-European are dubious, to say the least. The multivolume etymological dictionary of Slavic (vol. 7, 1980, pp. 114-116) prefers to compare grekh with Latvian grèzs “crooked” (not a new idea). If this comparison is allowed to stand, the traditional reference of the Germanic word for “lie, falsehood” (Engl. lie, etc.) to Latvian lùgt gains some credence, provided that word ever meant “bending.” Lies and sins are the opposite of straight words and actions. The semantic base for the words designating “sin” varies from language to language: compare Latin peccatum (possibly from “false step,” but this may be a case of folk etymology), Sanskrit pātaka (from “a fall”), Gothic frawaurhts, literally “perverse act,” and so forth. The modern concept of sin is a product of Christianity.

By contrast, Russian sud “judgment; court” does not belong to our story, because sud consists of the prefix s- (the stub of ancient som-, Russian su-) and the root meaning “to do,” reconstructed as dhē-. This division of the short, monosyllabic word sud belongs to the remote past and is made clear only through etymological analysis. It appears that the idea of Latvian sods “punishment” as a borrowing from Slavic need not be called into question.

Image credits: (1) “Holger Pedersen 1867-1953” by unknown, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (2) Portrait of Alfredo Trombetti by unknown, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons. (3) “Portrait of Alexander Wedderburn, 1st Earl of Rosslyn (1733-1805)” by Joshua Reynolds, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. John Cowan

    While Indo-European has the most speakers, Austronesian has almost three times as many languages, and Niger-Congo almost four times. Of course the definition of language is subjective and variable, but among groups of languages generally agreed to be related, these two are the outliers for size. Groups comparable in size to Indo-European are Sino-Tibetan and Trans–New Guinea (if it exists). Macrofamilies are of course by definition larger, but they aren’t generally agreed on.

  2. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    If Latvian sods is indeed a borrowing it would be interesting to reconstruct when and how it appeared in the language. Both su and dhē- are still operating as e.g. Lith sudėti might suggest (Latvian sadot or sadēt could be added but meaning goes in different direction with dēt becoming specific of what hens are doing, this could be different before). There are some correspondences as ranka-roka-ruka, žambas-zobs-zub which let think that borrowing might have happened after nasals disappeared in Latvian or alternatively there was some common word not existing anymore. Motivation for borrowing is unclear, as “greizs” in Latvian is indeed opposite of straight – “taisns” wherefrom Latvian court word “tiesa” is derived.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *