As a matter of fact, it is a long story, because the distant origin of hate—the word, not the feeling—is far from clear. As usual, we should try to determine the earliest meaning of our word (for it may be different from the one we know) and search for the cognates in and outside Germanic. At the beginning of the month (see the post for 1 August 2018), a good deal was said about the Gothic language. The reason is clear: apart from the most ancient Scandinavian runic inscriptions, the Gothic Bible is the oldest extant text in Germanic. It was written in the fourth century, and it often preserves the most archaic forms we have. With Gothic we are closer to the beginnings of Germanic speech than with Old English, Old High German, Old Norse, and the other closely related languages. The runic inscriptions are useful, but their vocabulary is limited. For example, there is nothing about hate in them.
In Gothic, two verbs occurred: hatan and hatjan. They (especially hatjan) turned up in very few forms, and little is known about their grammar and about the semantic differences between them. In the previous post, the Greek verbs that Wulfila translated with hatan/hatjan were discussed at length. In Old English, only hatian has been recorded, and it meant “to pursue,” not “to hate” (for example, in Beowulf, the phrase “to pursue [hatian] with evil deeds” occurs). In the Old Germanic texts, the word for hate appears again and again, but the context is most often religious, so that the early history of the verb hate is strongly colored by the Bible.
The senses “pursue” and “persecute” furnish better clues than “hate” to the verb’s initial meaning. For example, in the Old Scandinavian myths, the planets and gods live in constant fear of annihilation. But for Thor who wields the mighty hammer Mjöllnir, the giants would have destroyed the world, and chaos would have reigned supreme. Among other things, a wolf called Hati is in constant pursuit of the sun (and will indeed swallow it at Ragnarök). The monster’s name must have meant “pursuer,” not “hater”: a beast does not hate its prey.
The vacillation between hatan and hatjan recurs elsewhere. Outside Gothic and occasionally Old Icelandic, j in the suffix (I highlighted it above) causes a change called umlaut. In this case, umlaut turns the vowel a into e, and we’ll see many forms with e as we go along. Side by side with the name of the voracious Hati, there was the Old Icelandic word hetja “a brave warrior.” (Write hetja as hätja, and everything will fall into place!) No doubt, the hetja, too, was a “pursuer” (of his enemies). Equally revealing are the Modern German verb hetzen “to hound, to set dogs on” (the noun for this activity is Hatz “hunt, hunting with dogs”), even though it was attested rather late, and its Old English counterpart hettan “to persecute.” We may probably conclude that the history of hatred did begin with persecution and pursuit, rather than detestation, aversion, or wrath (wrath and anger occurred in last week’s discussion). The closest Germanic cognates of the noun hate (Old Engl. hete) are Old High German haz (Modern German Hass), Old Saxon heti, and Old Icelandic hatr. Also related is Old Saxon hōti “hostile.” The change from short a to long o (ō) is due to another process, whose nature has often been discussed in this blog. I mean ablaut (see, for instance, the post for 12 April 2017). In Modern English, we observe it when we conjugate some verbs (shake ~ shook, come ~ came, and the like), but in the past it was a motor of multifarious changes and alternations.
A word’s etymology is incomplete unless we have found its cognates. According to what is said above, ideally, they might be expected to mean “revulsion,” “fight,” perhaps “anger,” “pursuit,” and “persecution.” Let us remember that hate is a Germanic word, and, if we want to discover its congeners in Greek, Latin, Celtic—anywhere in Indo-European outside the Germanic family, we will need candidates that begin with k and have d in the middle, for this is the correspondence dictated by the inexorable First Consonant Shift, or Grimm’s Law (compare Engl. what and Latin quod, that is, kwod; Engl. two and Latin duo). At one time, Gothic hatis was compared with Latin odium “hatred” on the assumption that in the prehistorical epoch, odium lost initial k, but no one thinks so now.
Here are the cognates of hate one usually finds in etymological dictionaries and special papers: Greek kêdos “sorrow,” Welsh cas (allegedly from kads-) “hate,” and several other words meaning “hate, “destruction,” but also “care” and “sorrow.” From time to time, odd meanings turn up, for instance, “marriage.” Then it is said that “care” is behind it all. Yet the real surprise is Old Irish cais, which means “love” (compare Welsh cas, above). In the previous post, I mentioned Ossetic, an East Iranian language, in which a word for “love” is allegedly related to a Slavic word for “enemy,” and warned that I was planting a time bomb.
The article in which I have read about Ossetic bears the title “Hatred and Love.” Its author belonged to a school that tended to explain all kinds of seemingly irreconcilable contradictions by referring to magic (we’ll encounter another such case next week). To be sure, magic can be black or white, it is supposed to heal or harm. Beware of powerful skeleton keys when it comes to reconstruction! Everything suddenly finds an easy and plausible explanation. The trouble is that the opposites do meet, and only a short step separates love from hatred. These platitudes are good for clarifying many things, but do they account for the origin of the word hate?
Our choices are few. We may honor the entire multitude of the suggested non-Germanic cognates and try to put “care,” “sorrow,” “marriage,” and “love” in one semantic bag and try to reconcile them. Or we may decide that some of those words from Sanskrit, Greek, and Celtic don’t belong together. After all, phonetic similarity guides us to possible cognates, but the choice is ours: we may accept or reject them. It will be fair to say that in our case many things remain puzzling. The link from hate to the words meaning “pursue” or “persecute” looks too good to sacrifice. “Care,” even “sorrow”, and the rest cause trouble.
Words for abstract concepts usually go back to the names of concrete actions, qualities, or things. A recent theory has it that the word for “hate” can be traced to the image of a flock of small birds falling on their enemy and chasing it away. In this scenario, Latin cadere “to fall” emerges as a cognate of hate. It is a perfect candidate, for it begins with k and has d in the middle! Then there is the German noun Hader “fight,” with good cognates in and outside Germanic, known to some from the ancient name Hadubrand. Is this word akin to hate? And what about the birds?
We’ll let this embarrassment of riches be and come away with a modest prize: “hate” seems to have begun with “pursuit” and the feelings experienced by a hunter and a fighter. The rest is murky and will remain such for at least some time. Other than that, love is better than hate, even if the history of language sometimes puts them on an equal footing.
Featured Image: “Dargavs Ossetia Kakaz” by Amort1939. CC0 via Pixabay.