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Etymology and delusion, part 2

Last week (November 20, 2019), I discussed one aspect of etymological lunacy. Looking for a (or even the) protolanguage is a sound idea, even though specialists’ efforts in this direction have been both successful and disappointing. The existence of Proto-Indo-European and ProtoSemitic can hardly be doubted; yet many crucial details remain unknown. For example, the homeland of the Indo-Europeans and the circumstances that led to the triumph of that language in the enormous Eurasian territory remain a matter of controversy and speculation. Even attempts to reconstruct the language that was at one time spoken all over Eurasia have not been unsuccessful (the branch of linguistics devoted to this attempt is called Nostratics), but here the details are even murkier. Madness begins when someone points to a certain modern language (Irish, Russian, Arabic, Hebrew, or any other) as either the proto-source or at least a main source of another language or of several languages. It is instructive and frightening to see how successful such attempts sometimes appear to be: given enough ingenuity, almost anything can be “proved.”

Pondering the imponderable: a single source of all languages. Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay.

The other common symptom of this disease consists in tracing all the words of all languages to a limited (usually very few) number of roots or a single concept. A certain D. P. Martynov (stress on the second syllable), providentially not known outside Russia and now forgotten even there, held this view and wrote a book that did not escape the attention of psychiatrists. The book, titled (in translation) The Discovery of the Mystery of the Human Language, Exposing the Failure of Scientific Linguistics, appeared in Moscow in 1897. I have seen the book and even copied parts of it, but below I will quote Roman Jakobson’s characterization of the author. Martynov was a principal of public schools in Petrozavodsk (a town in northwest Russia) and compiler of primers. The discovery was “a ludicrous treatise combining fanciful etymologies, with mysticism and vulgar nutritive materialism, in which he advanced, with a great deal of inventiveness, morbid vituperation, and coarse humor, the idea that all words in all languages derive from the verb ‘to eat’.” Don’t miss a great deal of inventiveness.

Martynov is impossible to read. But In 1822-1825 three volumes appeared in Cambridge, England (published by the University Press for Richard Priestley), under the title Etymologicon Universale; or Universal Etymological Dictionary. The entire set is extremely rare, but it is now available online. Just like some of the authors mentioned last week, the Reverend Walter Whiter, who put together that enormous work (over two thousand pages, with excellent indexes), was a learned man, known for his work on Shakespeare. It is unclear what made him turn to etymology. He taught that all the words can be traced to the idea of “earth.” This central thesis of his is sometimes lost in long passages, but one can follow it through a welter of paragraphs and passages.

To be sure, in the 1820s English etymology was in almost every respect “prescientific.” I have often consulted the Etymologicon and found many “thought-provoking” remarks there, but failed to discover a single useful etymological suggestion. In recent times, no one except for me has probably studied this work for philological purposes. Wikipedia offers a tiny article on Whiter, but, apparently, its author did not analyze the enormous compendium. Criticizing someone who tried to discover the origin of words two centuries ago may not be worth the effort. But the dangerous idea that inspired Whiter never dies and invites caution. Why should all the words have a single nucleus, whether at the phonetic or the semantic level? However, as usual in etymology (and probably everywhere else), the line separating normalcy from delusion is easy to cross.

Primitive labor, primitive words. Relief from Trier, public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Some people reasoned that all or most words have roots in labor activities: people work, and create words in the process. However speculative, this looks like an attractive idea. Johann Steyrer, a German researcher, combined the lines of sound and sense development. On the one hand, he believed that vowels invariably develop in this order: oa (ua, uo)—ō, ā—ou—au, and iu—ū. Such a universal is suspicious by definition, but Steyrer arrived at his conclusion by comparing only the history of English and his native east Bavarian dialect (clearly, an insufficient database!). He also thought that the most basic human activity was weaving and derived all kinds of words from the root of German flechten “to weave.”  His main works appeared in 1887 and 1905. Today no one reads Steyrer, but all serious etymologists read Jost Trier (1894-1970). Inspired by the idea that language should be analyzed from the point of view of the community and its work, he derived numerous words from labor processes.

From ancient weaving to the itsy bitsy spider in light of etymology. Image 1: Hataori by Yanagawa Shigenobu; no known copyright restrictions, via the Library of Congress. Image 2: spider weaving by Wonderland, CC by 2.0 via Flickr.

Unlike Steyrer, Trier was an excellent word historian, but many of his “monomaniacal” etymologies are open to criticism, to put it mildly. They are never silly, but often too goal-oriented, the goal being a universal principle of word derivation. His emphasis on the unifying spirit of the community attracted him to the Nazis. The German Wikipedia says nothing about his being a member of Hitler’s party, while the English Wikipedia says nothing about his etymologies! His most ardent follower was the great Dutch Germanic scholar Jan de Vries, another Nazi. Trier’s career ran smoothly in the postwar years, while Jan de Vries, who was an active functionary of the Third Reich, spent several years in prison and, unlike Trier, was never allowed to teach after the war, though publishers were happy to bring out his books and articles, and he gave numerous guest lectures at German universities. (Alas, scholarship and politics are capricious partners. I don’t know anyone in the medieval field who has not benefited by de Vries’s excellent books.)

Emphasis on labor and primeval magic seduced the Georgian-Russian archeologist N. Ya. Marr (1864-1934). He embraced Marxism, announced Indo-European scholarship to be a product of imperialism, colonialism, and racism; propagated his own (the only correct) model, and taught that all words of all languages go back to so-called diffused exclamations sal, ber, yon, and rosh (the concept of primordial diffused complexes was also his invention). And of course, his opponents were silenced, and he acquired a huge and belligerent following, with many talented young people seduced by his revolutionary teachings. As expected, books appeared showing how ancient legends reflect the labor process and ancient magic and how words do derive from sal, ber, yon, and rosh. His teachings were the laughing stock in the West, but Russia, as we know, can at times become self-sufficient. Marr’s cult came to an end, when another great linguist, Joseph Stalin, subjected it to harsh criticism in 1950, and, lo and behold, it turned out that Indo-European scholarship was not racist, that Marr had been a bad Marxist, and that the words of all languages did not go back to sal, ber, yon, and rosh. My collection of such works is rather large. Surprisingly, quite a few monomaniacs were medical doctors. If someone has not read Chekhov’s Ward Number 6, do so.

We know next to nothing about the beginnings of language, but we have learned from bitter experience that any attempt to find a master key to its origin or to the origin of all words will invariably open a door to a closet with ghosts and skeletons in it.

Feature image credit: Image by Paul Brennan, public domain from Pixabay.

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas

    Dear Anatoly,

    So where in your post are these “amateur etymologists” you warned us about in Part 1? Perhaps you should revise your warning to read,

    “Beware of etymologists. Some of them are deranged and devilishly ingenious.”

    Certainly the etymologists you discuss here fit your warning! More harm comes from misguided and deluded ‘expertise’ than from naive amateurs interested only in the search for truth.

    Each proposed etymology must stand on itsown. Amateur or expert alike. If we follow this self-evident truth, truth will eventualy follow.

    No ‘linguistic theory’ can solve the ‘proto-problem’. Since these stick to examining the inside of the “melting pot” to determine which wax came first in the mix.

    But much can be known if we consider what Science is telling us. The recent aDNA studies show the Neolithic (and earlier) people that migrated to Western and Central Europe (including the British Isles) came from the Aegean. Bringing with them their language.


  2. Yves Rehbein

    I wanted to say something about Maxim Gorki, when you last mentioned the name. There are various regions called Gor-, e.g. Gorleben, or perhaps Göritz. I had meant to say that could relate to senses around marshes, moores and swamps, as that theme seems to feature prominently in placenames, from Moskau to Berlin and Beyond. And I thought this could compare to *gorki* “bitter”, in the best manner of the topic of this week.

    Later I had wondered about “Strel-“, “Stral-” (e.g. Alt-Stralau peninsula in Berlin), which appears in placenames and is linked to an Slavic-Germanic isogloss interpreted as “arrow” (cp perhaps beam, Pfeil, pillar, …). Today I was told that G “Landsberg” (written variously) had a Polish name in G-, hopefully “Gor-“. Lanze, that is lance, fits into this theme. Indeed, there’s a similar PIE root glossed “spear”.

    I’m hoping you can say something to that.

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