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What is the origin of the word "hear"?

Hearsay? It depends on what you hear

Even if not without some difficulty, one can imagine the process of naming concrete objects and actions, as it happened millennia ago. Sound imitation and sound symbolism go a long way toward accounting for the origin of put, screech, squeal, break, crunch, drum, jig-jag-jog, and their likes. Not that one can look at those words and come up with a convincing etymological solution, but at least the impulses behind their creation does not appear to be too mysterious. But what about feel, hear, see, love, and hate?

Hear is especially tough. Before multiplying forms from many languages, I would like to give an example of an unpredictable stumbling block where one does not expect it. The German for “hear” is hören. It is a clear-cut cognate of English hear. Both go back to a form like haus-jan (-jan is the suffix of the infinitive and needn’t bother us), recorded in a fourth-century Gothic Bible (we have no older long consecutive text in Germanic than parts of the New Testament in Gothic). German auf means “on,” and the verb aufhören also exists (auf is a prefix, and hören is the root). Someone who does not know German will, naturally, conclude, that aufhören means “to listen.” But it means “to stop doing something.” As far I can judge, this strange word has never been explained to everybody’s satisfaction. True enough, in the past, hören could also mean “to stop,” and we read in dictionaries that when one wants to hear something, one stops and listens—hence the obsolete sense of hören and aufhören.

Hear, hear! What is the origin of the word "hear"?
Hear! Hear!
(By UK Parliament via Flickr)

Perhaps so, but still surprising. Incidentally, hören auf, with auf used as a preposition after hören, means “to obey,” which makes sense: you hear and do what you are told. One expects some connection between a verb of hearing and sound, and this is what we find in English listen, even though the existence of listen, formerly list, is a puzzle: it is rare for hear and listen to derive from different roots. (For instance, Latin audīre means both!) The case of Russian is more typical: slyshat’ “to hear” versus slushat’ “to listen”: vowels alternate in the same root. Listen goes back to hlystan; such is the recorded Old English form. The word is fully opaque as long as we remain in Germanic, but if we remember that by the First Consonant Shift h corresponds to non-Germanic k, help will come from the related English loud, Old English hlūd, whose cognates are Greek klúein “to hear,” Latin cluēre “to be famed,” and so forth.

If even such seemingly transparent words pose problems, one can imagine how hard it is to reconstruct the origin of hear. As usual, the first question is whether hear is limited to Germanic, where its cognates are ubiquitous and, from an etymological point of view, unexciting. Greek a-koú-ein (compare English a-coustics) looks like a tolerably good partner if we succeed in getting rid of a-. This we can do, because even though initial a- in Greek has several functions, it is a prefix and thus plays no decisive role in determining the origin of the root. It will soon become clear why I added decisive to my statement.

Everybody has heard about him, and he is very famous.
(Napoleon Bonaparte on the Bridge at Arcole by Antoine-Jean Gros, via Wikimedia Commons)

But what is kou-, the root of the Greek word? Rather probably, it is related to kûdos “honor, fame” (think of English kudos, which British students took over from Greek). The connection between kou– and – reminds us of what happed in the history of loud. Apparently, fame comes when something is proclaimed loudly enough, for everyone to hear. If “loud” is indeed the primary element in this semantic chain, we wonder: what is kûd? It does not resemble a typical onomatopoeic root. All other links in Greek, Latin, and Slavic lead us to the sense “notice.” To hear is to notice (fair enough), but, as usual, once we obtain a reliable root, we stop. What is there in the complex kûd or kūd that yielded the idea of hearing or listening? This is the blind alley I have so often discussed in my previous posts. We have a list of roots, but unless they are sound-imitative or sound-symbolic, we are puzzled by what we have found.

Not unexpectedly, the first question students ask when confronted with this array of forms is: “Are ear and hear related?” The two words sound almost alike in several Germanic languages. Etymological algebra separates them, but it is hard to imagine that such a coincidence is fortuitous. Desperate attempts to connect ear and hear exist. We have already come across the word acoustics. If we divide Greek akousio “I hear well” not into a-kous-io but into ak-ous-io (akousma means “hearing; something told; melody; story,” and so forth), with ak– “sharp” (as in Latin: compare English acrid and acrimonious), the desired connection between ear and hear will be restored. (This is why I italicized decisive above!) But this etymology is, most probably, implausible.

Finally, does Latin audire “to hear” and “to listen” throw any light, however dim, on our verb? It too resembles the Latin word for “ear” (auris: consider English aural), though not too closely. The verb is an innovation in Latin and has no etymology. With the perseverance perhaps worthy of a better cause I keep repeating that a word of unknown origin can never elucidate another equally obscure word but let us look at a rather hopeless hypothesis to get out of the impasse. Perhaps, it has been suggested, h- in Gothic hausjan is a prefix (speakers did not drop their h’s at that time—as far as we can judge). Then of course we get the root aus-, which immediately reminds us of Latin auscultare (English auscultate is a learned but recognizable verb), produces a link to audire and Gothic auso “ear,” and solves all problems. But the prefix h-, which would correspond to non-Germanic k-, does not seem to have existed, and we remain where were at the beginning of this paper chase. Slavic and Baltic do not provide any help. Russian slushat’ ~ slyshat’ (see them above) are related to such verbs as English listen and Old High German hlosen “to hear,” and others with l- from -hl.

An auditorium and an audience: both from Latin audire.
(Left: Frederic Köberl on Unsplash; Right: Antenna on Unsplash)

What then is the conclusion? The verb hear has no obvious cognates outside Germanic (also an innovation, as in Latin?). Latin audire is hopelessly isolated. The Greek verb and its cognates have an ascertainable root, but we don’t know why it means “hear” (to us it is just an arbitrary combination of sounds). Though the verb hear bears an almost uncanny resemblance to the noun ear, our vaunted etymological algebra has no means to connect them, though in real life, ears and hearing are connected in the most obvious way.

And now a last nail in the coffin of today’s etymology. Are the verbs hark and harken (hearken is a historically wrong spelling, influenced by hear) related to hear? Not necessarily so, though this conclusion sounds (!) almost incredible. The so-called intensifying (or frequentative) suffix k seems to have existed in Germanic. The same three pairs are always cited: lurk, allegedly from lower “to frown,” walk (from a rather obscure base), and talk from tell. Only the tell ~ talk pair is unobjectionable. Though those k-verbs have cognates in German and beyond, their derivation is rather unclear everywhere. Yet once again we wonder: Is it possible that hear is unrelated to ear and hark is unrelated to hear? How did those words influence one another? Whence this puzzling similarity? Their recorded history has been traced well, but the answer is hidden. Life would have been a dull thing if everything was clear.

Featured image by kyle smith on Unsplash

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas


    When brilliant minds look elsewhere for the etymology of “hear”, they make meaningful mess!

    May I suggest English “hear” (with or without “ear”) may derive from the ancient Greek “ηχος” (sound).

    Surely, the verb “hear” follows “ηχος”, the sound to hear.

  2. John B.

    German “aufhören” seems quite transparent to me.
    Consider “aufhorchen”, which is the same word, with an intensifying -k just like in tell~talk. Aufhorchen is what, say, a grazing deer does when it hears an unexpected sound: it will immediately stop grazing (or whatever it happens to be doing), raise its head, prick its ears and remain frozen in that posture for a while.

  3. Constantinos Ragazas

    Further…you write,

    “But what is kou-, the root of the Greek word [ακουω]?”

    This Greek root may be related to the Greek word “κουφος” (deaf). Same root, btw, as in “cuckou”! Thus the Greek word “ακουω” may mean “not deaf”.

    It seems rather odd that the more common condition “hear” may have derived from the less common condition of being “deaf”!

    But if we analyze this further and reconstruct the “original experience” that created these words (“κουφος/ακουω”) its likely the rare condition of being deaf required more decisive identification before the ubiguitous universal condition of being able to hear. A little like ‘fish being unaware of water’. And “to hear” (“ακουω”) later acquired the meaning of “not being deaf” (α-κουφος) in a negation contrast.

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