As promised, I am continuing the series on senses. There have already been posts on feel and taste. To show how hard it may be to discover the origin of some of our most basic words, I have chosen the verb hear. Germanic is here uniform: all the languages of this group have predictable reflexes (continuations) of the ancient form hauzjan. Tracing the way from hauzjan to Engl. hear, German hören, Dutch hooren, and Icelandic heyra is not worth the trouble, because all the changes from the protoform are regular, that is, they obey some well-known phonetic rules. Gothic, recorded in the fourth century, had hausjan “to hear.” If hear means and has always meant “to perceive sound,” what impulses made people coin it? In one post after another, I celebrate the role of onomatopoeia. Here is a linguistic event in which we could expect reference to sound, noise, or at least vibrations, but, alas, neither hauzjan nor hausjan produces any vibrations worth mentioning.
Yet one easily notices something else: hear rhymes with ear, and the rhyme is ancient (the Gothic for “ear” was auso). Is it possible that haus- (-jan, the ending of the infinitive, need not bother us) is aus with some mysterious prefix? After all, if s-mobile exists, why not h-mobile? Such a solution would leave us with the question about the distant origin of aus– “ear,” but this question exists anyway, and it would be better to have one riddle rather than two. Since many learned people refuse to believe that hear and ear are so strikingly similar by chance, the hunt for the origin of h- began long ago.
S–mobile may be a nuisance, but it occurs in dozens of words, while the prefix h does not exist. To anticipate a tempting hypothesis, it should be said at once that h-dropping, (which presupposes the loss of initial h and adding this sound where it does not belong, as in the hatmosphere of the hair and ‘Arry for Harry) did occur in Old Germanic but was rare (nothing to compare with perhaps the most famous feature of the Cockney dialect), and reference to this process in our case cannot even be considered.
In searching for the origin of ancient Germanic words, we try to find their cognates outside Germanic. When it comes to consonants, our guide is a set of correspondences, known as Grimm’s Law, or the First Consonant Shift. According to it, where Germanic has f, th, and h, Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, Celtic, and Slavic are expected to have p, t. and k. Is there a non-Germanic word for hear that begins with k? Sort of, as they say. The Greek for “I hear” is akoúō. Assuming that a- is, from a historical point of view, a prefix, koú looks like a semi-respectable partner of Germanic hau-s, especially if we remember Greek a-kous-iō “I listen attentively,” which has s in the root (and which we know from acoustics). But this bold dismemberment of the Greek words makes one feel uneasy, for, among other things, the “prefix a-” here is no less enigmatic than h in hauzjan. In this connection I wish to cite, not for the first time, an important law (I call it important, because it was I who formulated it): correct etymologies are rarely, if ever, stunningly complex.
There also is Latin audire (cf. Engl. audible and audition) and auscultare (recognizable from Engl. auscultation). Both mean “to listen” (not “to hear”!), and both contain au. Auscultare, rather obviously consists of aus– and –cultare, with aus– being an exact counterpart of Gothic aus-o “ear,” rather than haus-, with its indestructible initial h.
So far, the path from hear to Greek and Latin has led us nowhere. But one notices Greek koéō “I observe,” with a few related Latin words, familiar to English speakers: consider cavēre “to beware,” as in caveat, caution, and kudos (the latter from epic Greek, meaning “glory,” literally “that which is heard of”).
Slavic too has a few related forms, and so do Old English and Old Icelandic, but, surprisingly, the Germanic cognates point to sight, rather than hearing! Engl. show and sheen belong here, both with old s before k in sk-, which became sh– (movable s, s-mobile of course!). This comparison is fairly suggestive, and, if it is correct, it teaches us an important lesson: when we search for the related forms of the words designating senses, we shouldn’t hunt for exact synonyms. In the recent discussion of feel and taste, we kept running into “touch,” and, if hear has any good cognates, they need not mean “hear”: “observe,” “perceive, “be cognizant of” are good enough.
The root haus (from Indo-European kaus) might indeed mean something like “take note of,” but why this complex was endowed with such a meaning remains a puzzle, and we would still want to understand the reason for the incredible similarity between hear and ear? Is it due to chance? We’ll never know.
The word ear, contrary to the verb hear, has unquestionable cognates and, along with eye, foot, heart, nose, and nail, goes back to the oldest stage of Indo-European. Since hear has rather dubious relatives outside Germanic, while the ancestry of ear has been established beyond reasonable doubt, a union between hear and ear begins to look even less credible than before. To be sure, we can suppose that some ancient verb meaning “hear” was altered by popular usage to sound like the name of the organ of hearing, but, since this hypothesis cannot be proved, there is no point discussing it.
By way of conclusion, it should be added that not only a word like hear did not have to mean “to perceive sound” when it was coined. The names of physical defects may be equally non-specific. It is quite likely that the Greek cognate of deaf is tuphlós “blind.” The two words are connected in that they mean “confused, embarrassed, unable to react.” Their later development is also characteristic: in several Germanic languages, the verbs derived from the root of deaf mean “to be mad, crazy; to rage; to debilitate.” The change of dumb from “unable to speak” to “stupid” is known only too well, and that is why the older term deaf and dumb has yielded to deaf and mute.
Deaf, blind, and so forth may be amazingly obscure, because they were subject to taboo. People were afraid to pronounce some words for fear of inviting the objects, diseases, and wild animals designated by such dangerous words: for example, you will say deaf and become deaf! Sounds would be transposed or changed in them. Such garbled words defy the efforts of the most ingenious etymologists. It does not seem that see and hear, along with the names of the corresponding organs, fell victim to taboo. Yet, as follows from the story told above, their origins are also hidden better than one could wish for.
Feature image credit: In the ear hearing aid. CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.