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Seeing is believing - The Oxford Etymologist

Seeing is believing (?)

Last week, I wrote about the origin of the verb hear. It is only natural that today I’ll try to say something about the verb see. Once again, we’ll have to admit that the more basic a word is, the less we know about its remote history.

Like hear, the verb see has cognates in all the Germanic languages. They all sound alike and mean the same, but, as usual, the fourth-century Gothic form (which is saihwan: pronounce ai as in Engl. set or sat, and h as in hat) is of special importance, because it is the oldest one on record. In Gothic, we also find the word sai (ai again as in saihwan) “look, behold!” Is this word a Gothic neologism, the first syllable of saihwan, turned into an imperative? It would have been tempting to let sai have its own origin and produce saihwan from it, but what then is –hwan? Apparently, this is a dead-end etymology. Sai looks like a demonstrative pronoun (this). In the New Testament, it corresponds to Latin ecce.

Seeing is believing.
(Photo by Nathan Bingle on Unsplash.)

Not without hesitation, many dictionaries still cite Latin sequī “I follow” (cf. Engl. sequel, consequent, and so forth) as related to saihwan. The phonetic correspondence could not be better, but the underlying sense poses a problem. Is it “to follow with one’s eyes”? According to an old suggestion, the verb of seeing was originally coined by hunters and meant “to sense; to follow the trail.” Some support for this hypothesis exists in Lithuanian usage, and it has recently found support in an authoritative book on Indo-European and the Indo-Europeans. The argument depends on a familiar conundrum. You may remember that a week ago, we were left wondering whether ear and hear are related. It would seem that the words eye and see have nothing in common, but, given some ingenuity, we may come up with an almost identical root. Indo-European roots often appear with or without initial s (this is the familiar s-mobile). Latin oculus and Gothic augo “eye” can perhaps be traced to the root (s)okw “eye,” in turn akin to sekw “to see.” I will now quote from the book referred to above:

“If we project the cooccurrence of both meanings in a single word onto the Proto-Indo-European level… we must posit a common word with the meanings ‘eye’; ‘view’; ‘look, see’ and also ‘follow, pursue’. This combination of meanings becomes understandable through the intermediary meaning ‘follow with one’s eyes, not let out of sight, use with the quarry as object.”

Granted: it is tempting to reconstruct the mentality of the early hunter speaking Proto-Indo-European, but such somersaults leave one a bit dizzy.

Another less audacious approach connects see, that is, Germanic sehwan, with verbs like Latin secare “to cut” (cf. Engl. sect, section, dissect, and the like). Indeed, seeing is the result of looking and observing: we dissect, cut the picture into fragments, and see what we are looking at. Not long ago, this etymology was defended by Viktor Levitsky. Additionally, he resurrected the old suggestion that see and say are related: “cut—make a furrow—pursue—watch, see—consider—speak, say.” Latin insequor means “to follow, pursue; attack” and “berate, reproach.” At the moment, we needn’t bother about say.

Looking and observing… Most Indo-European languages have different words for “look” and “see,” and, if the same root is used, then the verb of looking has a prefix. Latin distinguished between vidēre and specere ~ spectare (as in Engl. specter, spectacle, inspect, and the rest). Hear and listen are often related in the languages of the world, but surprisingly, see and look are usually (or even as a rule) derived from different roots. Though Engl. look has cognates in Germanic and perhaps Celtic, its etymology remains unknown. Elsewhere, the verb meaning “look” is related to the verb for “show” or for “a source of light.”  

An anthropos as a seeing individual.
(“U.S.S. sailor looking through telescope on Mayflower,” Library of Congress via Picryl.)

In an attempt to decipher the origin of the verb see, a list of cognates takes us almost nowhere. Similar-sounding verbs have been recorded in Albanian and Celtic. Quite probably, they are related to Germanic sehwan (Gothic saihwan), but since they also mean “see” or “indicate,” that is, the same or approximately the same as see, they are of limited use in our search. More interesting are Hittite sakuwa “eyes” and Lithuanian sèkti “to follow the track of.” For curiosity’s sake, I’ll cite an example of an especially ingenious attempt to find a cognate of our verb. One of the hardest words for etymologists is Greek ‘anthrōpos “a human being.” If this noun is, from a historical point of view, ‘anthrōpos and means “a seeing individual,” then perhaps –ōpos from sokwos joins the club. This guess has not inspired anyone, even though some good parallels turned up in Greek.  I may add that words have an uncanny ability to hide their past. For instance, German seltsam “rare” goes back to the adjective selt-siene “seldom to be seen,” but it hid its origin behind the suffix –sam. If we did not know the oldest form, we would never have guessed the history of this adjective.

An etymologist is a sharp-eyed hunter and searches for tracks everywhere. The Germanic for “eye” must have sounded somewhat like German Auge and Gothic augo, which is almost a twin of Germanic auso– “ear.” Eyes and ears are our main organs of perception. Is it not possible that they were coined with the view of emphasizing the similarity of their function? I am saying this to explain why an informed entry on eye tends to contain only ingenious guesses and why a satisfactory solution can hardly be expected. Finally, as is well-known, people were afraid of speaking about their body for fear of harming it and intentionally disguised the word’s true form. You will mention an eye and go blind (speak of the devil!). This, as most will remember, is called tabu. Perhaps the word for “eye” was at one time changed beyond recognition, and all links to its origin are lost.

Once again, we have been exposed to a medley of conflicting hypotheses. Yet we are not completely in the dark with the verb see. Rather probably, the original sense of the verb was close to “perceive; get to know.” Latin vidēre “to see” is related to Engl. wit (German wissen) “to know” (as in to wit, witless, and witty). The connection is impeccable, and it appears that seeing referred to a continuous mental effort and its results. Characteristically, in several old languages, the verb in question, as opposed to the verb of looking, had no past or perfect (the action referred to a process confronting the viewer at any given moment and did not need those forms!). The root of Russian smotret’ “to see” recurs in several Slavic words meaning “seek” and “careful.” Especially typical is Bulgarian smotra “I think, I believe.” Compare Engl. I see “I understand.”

The hunter is down from the hill.
(“Robert Louis Stevenson sculpture in St. Giles’ cathedral” via Wikimedia Commons.)

I have some doubts about our verb going back to the ancient hunter’s mentality. Ties with Latin oculus are also hard to establish, but Hittite sakuwa “eyes” (see it above) suggests that the words for “eye” and “see” may sometimes be related. We have no way of deciding whether the similarity between augo– “eye” and auso- “ear” is accidental. The idea that seeing is tantamount to dissecting and discerning holds out some promise.

It would be rash to assert that, with this essay in the bag, “the hunter is down from the hill,” but perhaps some conjectures presented above should be treated with tolerance and rescued for further investigation.

Featured image by David Travis on Unsplash

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