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Etymology gleanings for October 2017


♦Singular versus plural. What feel(s) like failed relationships…. The dilemma is as old as the hills: English speakers have always felt uncertain about the number after what. An exemplary treatment of this problem will be found in the old editions of H. W. Fowler’s Modern English Usage (the entry what 2). Fowler quotes many sentences and corrects them, but even he does not risk saying that one of the variants (what is versus what are) is wrong: he only says that his variant is better. If I may add my observations from the examples collected over the years, practically everybody says: “what we need are more books” as against “what we need is more money.” In other cases, the norm becomes fluid: the opposition between what matter is ~ are books does not look rigid. A curious example of agreement is the use of the word percent, as in 30% of this population is poor, but 30% of these people are poor: the verb depends on the word that follows. All the rest is trivial. The use of the plural with collective nouns, as in my family are early risers and the couple were seldom seen together, seems to be rare in American English, though some words are uniformly plural (cattle and police, for instance). Many other confusing instances, words ending in -s but treated as singulars among them (a chemical works, at a crossroads, let alone mumps, measles, rickets, and molasses), are discussed at length in dictionaries and manuals.

What feel(s) like failed relationships. The couple were early risers and were seldom seen together.

♦The advice write standard, speak dialect is fine only in theory, because most people follow the second and tend to disregard the first half of this precept. Standard is an elusive concept: learners are expected to give up their habits and obey the rules with which they inwardly disagree. (The most usual comment: “Yes, the mood of the tales are gloomy is probably wrong, but it flows.” And it certainly does.)

♦As to grammatical cases, when I said that English has no cases, I meant nouns. I am indeed aware of the he—him, I—me, and other similar forms; I even distinguish between who and whom.

Back to the animal farm

When we can reconstruct the origin of an animal name with some certainty, we end up with roots like gwō– (for cow), owi– (for ewe), and su- ~ sū- ~ suk– (for sow “pig”). They may be onomatopoeias, and it is therefore pointless to ask whether they are related. Bird names are especially often sound-imitating, but fish are silent creatures, so that peiskos, the putative protoform of fish, should be kept apart from the likes of owi-. The initial meaning of peisk– is a matter of dispute. Greek ikhthús “fish” (known to English speakers from ichthyology), whose cognates have survived in several languages, including Lithuanian, is also a word of unclear origin. In any case, fish names and the names of the quadrupeds mentioned above have nothing in common.

Peaceful coexistence.

Sheep is not related to shear (though that would have been a perfect fit), for one root ends in –p and the other in –r. Last week (18 October 2017), I avoided details in my discussion of sheep, but, since the question arose, I’ll summarize the story as I find it in a paper by Garry W. Davis (1991). At the earliest stages of civilization, people used sheepskin for clothing; they learned to pluck (not shear!) wool later. Shearing, as we know it, became possible only when iron shears were invented, presumably in the Near East, about 1000 B.C. As far as Germanic is concerned, two verbs—shape and shave—converge in our reconstruction. Their oldest forms were skapjan and skab-an (in the latter, b, presumably from bh, was pronounced as v). The German reflex (continuation) of skapjan is shaffen “to create” (from “cut out, shape”); its English cognate is shape. Skaban continued into Modern English as shave.  The relatedness of skapjan and skaban is probable rather than certain.

If sheep and its cognates in West Germanic have the root of the verb meaning “to shave” and if the iron shears became known only about three thousand years ago and in the Near East, the word sheep is younger than three millennia. The protoform of ewe, a widespread Indo-European word, was feminine. When the sheep was domesticated, it was used for milk and various dairy products. As a general rule, the ancient words for domestic animals, when they applied to both males and females, were neuters (as are Old Engl. scæp and German Schaf). If the root of ewe has something to do with “wool,” the ability to breed lambs could not have been looked upon as primary in female sheep. But then why the feminine gender? I also wondered why, if the root of ewe is related to some word for wool, as many linguists think, people coined a special word like sheep. Did they do so to emphasize the new process? Characteristically, Old Icelandic fær “sheep,” from fahaz, is related to Latin pecto and Greek pékō “I comb”; Lithuanian provides a similar reference. It looks as though fær is an earlier word than sheep and reflects a more primitive stage of getting wool. Yet both seem to have been coined to emphasize the progress from wearing sheepskin to obtaining wool, first by plucking, later by shearing.

This is what can be called progress!

Can the word sheep be a borrowing? Yes, but it hardly is. Every borrowing should be accounted for. We seem to know why sheep was added to the vocabulary of West Germanic. To say that people borrow words even when there is no need to do so explains nothing. After all, there always is some reason for importing a foreignism. The existing etymology of both ewe and sheep is far from ideal, but, since the source from which sheep was allegedly borrowed is just “some substrate (definitely not a Near Eastern!) language,” I prefer to stay away from this hypothesis.

Lamb has been convincingly compared with several words outside Germanic. They mean “antelope; deer.” The word must have meant “small cattle” or “fawn,” but not “the young of the sheep.” The root (e)len is not sound-imitative, but what it meant has never been discovered. As for the Greek word, according to the best dictionaries, in Homer, próbaton in the plural refers to sheep and goats, while in Hesiod, the singular means “sheep; ram.”

Abstract thinking and borrowing

Words like know were coined in the remotest past, but the names of abstract concepts usually appear in language with concrete senses. To know probably developed from “to perceive, to recognize, to be acquainted with.” However, in order to borrow such words, people have to reach a stage at which the native word is not sufficient. Know did quite well and should be treated as a Germanic verb of Indo-European origin, rather than a loan from Greek.

Know thyself. Socrates was Greek, but the verb “know” is English.

I was most pleased to be advised to try some easy etymology and will soon follow this advice!

To be continued.

Recent Comments

  1. Jevgēnijs Kaktiņš

    Just wondering if Latvian current shape of a sheep AITA has been directly influenced by their counting – “skaitīt aitas”. A short wikipedia research leads to Cervantes being influenced by earlier works reflecting probably a widely recognized practice in the Islamic world before the early twelfth century. It is noteworthy that one of the largest tributaries to our main river Daugava called Aiviekste has something to do with sheep as well. Who knows, maybe once used for sheep crossing the river. One more interesting aspect inspired by the picture for this post is interplay between a dog and a wolf with regard to sheep. Latvian šķēps (spear) reminds of sheep as well but its sense development requires more leaps in imagination.

  2. Constantinos Ragazas

    “Words like know were coined in the remotest past, ”

    Without written records how do we know that?

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