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star etymology word origin

The scars of old stars

The Oxford Etymologist is coming out of hibernation and picks up where he left off in mid-December. It may be profitable to return to the origin of star, but from a somewhat broader perspective. In the comments, the question was asked about what impulses could motivate our remote ancestors to coin the word under discussion, and I was instructed to use Greek as my loadstar. Before coming to the point, I should say that I am truly grateful for the comments. Those were scarce in the year we saw off less than a week ago. Yet readers’ remarks, however acerbic, are always welcome (in the post, I even managed to miss a letter in Russian zvezda; the typo has been corrected without acknowledging the reader’s input, and I hasten to make redress now, almost a month later).

First of all, we should ask ourselves about the nature and habits of the “primitive people” to whom we ascribe the creation of language and the words we use. Let us begin at the beginning (a sensible recommendation in all cases). Next to nothing is known about the origin of language. What do we want to reconstruct? The most primitive syntax? The “first” words? The system of vowels, consonants, and intonations sufficient for producing a statement or a question? About a century ago, it was suggested that the Aranda language (Australia) had only one vowel. Some enthusiasts concluded that such had been the beginning of human language. I am not sure too many linguists still endorse that hypothesis.

Are we looking into his speech habits?
Image: Homo heidelbergensis – forensic facial reconstruction, via Wikimedia Commons

Were words coined as isolated signals or as part of a coherent message? Unfortunately, we have relatively little to learn from children’s ways of mastering language, because they acquire language skills from us, adults, though the way their phonetic system develops (and the way the phonetic system disintegrates in progressive aphasia) may perhaps give us some clues to the evolution of language. On another note, can we learn anything from the signals used by primates or by dolphins? Dolphins loom large in books on the origin of language. Talented chimps have also been celebrated more than once.

Let us turn to “the first words” in the spirit of Rudyard Kipling’s Just So Stories. Our ancestors used some primordial cries to accompany their actions, for otherwise, language would not have evolved. What were those cries, or, rather, what can we know about them? The oldest recorded Indo-European languages (Hittite, Tocharian, Sanskrit, Greek, Gothic) had a ramified system of endings. Their grammar and vocabulary are a nightmare for students, but the native speakers did not complain! The Danish linguist Otto Jespersen formulated a theory, according to which “progress in language” (his term) means simplification. He cited English as his ideal: almost no morphology left (I spoke, he/she/we/they spoke, and so forth). Jespersen’s idea is an illusion. English has little morphology left but watch its rigid syntax and constructions like would have been waiting, with three auxiliary verbs and the ending –ing!

In Eastern Siberia, on the banks of the Yenisei River, two tribes of the Kets live, but their settlements are hundreds of miles apart and the dialects are not mutually understandable. Some living conditions found among the Kets were primitive indeed, and yet few more complicated grammatical systems than in Ket exist anywhere in the world. During WWII, Stalin had all the Russian Germans deported, and many of them ended up in Eastern Siberia. Some specialists managed to survive. A group of outstanding researchers described the Ket language, and later other linguists joined them. The Ket experience shows that primitive economy has nothing to do with the complexity of the speakers’ language or the length of their words. Anyone who would compare Latin and Italian will come to the same conclusion.

The Yenisei in its full glory.

In the nineteenth century, the first dictionary of Indo-European roots was put together. Those were abstracted from recorded forms, but many people believe that such roots are the cells from which word developed. The most recent dictionary of roots (by Julius Pokorny,1887-1970, a revised version of the work by Walde-Pokorny) is more reliable than the old one by August Fick, 1833-1916, but the principle behind it remains the same. The roots are not the nuclear words of human beings.

August Fick and Julius Pokorny

We are unable to bridge the gap between modern languages and the speech of “primitive man” and can only rely on the longevity of some basic impulses. That is why sound-symbolic and sound-imitative words, often celebrated in this blog, are so instructive: the motivation behind word creation has probably not changed too much since the beginning of time (compare my constant references to the works of Wilhelm Oehl). Classical Greek ástēr means “star.” Can anyone seriously believe that this is a “primitive” word? Indeed, it can be understood as “not on the earth.” This form is millennia away from what people once said while watching the sky. The Greek noun might even be a late product of folk etymology! I’ll ignore the hard questions about whether the Semitic lookalikes are the source of the Indo-European form. Let us suppose that the Indo-European word is native. When it was coined, it was probably simplicity itself. Greek, including Homeric Greek, is an inestimable source for reconstructing the early stages of Indo-European but not of the beginning of human speech.

That is why I was impressed by the hypothesis that Russian iskra “spark” and star were in some way related. Those intangible and indefinable primitive people (the strawmen of naïve language historians and daring etymologists) were closer to nature than we are. That much is certain. They saw distant stars strewing light from above, believed in the influence of those bodies on their lives, and, not improbably, called the celestial bodies STR- or SKR- (both consonant groups are among the most common ones in forming words for streaming, strewing, scaring, and so forth).

If it is true that people coin words motivated by emotional impulses, the best laboratory for a language historian is slang. Thousands of “funny” words fill our speech, and new ones appear all the time. They were not coined millennia ago, and yet their origin is almost always unknown! Just look them up in dictionaries. Try scrumptious, and at best you will be told that this is a facetious alteration of sumptuous. Not an unreasonable hypothesis: scr– will make any word sound impressive. Sumptuous means “first-class, splendid,” but what is scrumptious is doubly impressive.

Sumptuous! Scrumptious!
(Photo by Anna Frodesiak, via Wikimedia Commons)

We’ll probably never know for sure how the word star originated, but that star was certainly not born in Greece, even though the name looks transparent. Etymology and all linguistics are part of the humanities. They are unlike rocket science or microbiology, but it does not mean that anyone armed only with the knowledge of an old language can solve riddles by merely looking at a word. There is method in etymology, as in some other sane things. 

Feature image by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash

Recent Comments

  1. Gavin Wraith

    I read somewhere that the Hittites used to leave out jars of water on their rooftops because they believed that starlight would imbue the water with magical properties. Maybe the word ‘haster’ is related to the belief? Please excuse this totally parenthetic remark.

  2. Constantinos Ragazas

    Anatoly, you write

    “We’ll probably never know for sure how the word star originated, but that star was certainly not born in Greece”

    Why not! Is there some esoteric understanding that forbids that?

    Many years ago I attended a talk by a Princeton philosophy professor titled “I do not exist!”. Through some convoluted logic he presented a well reasoned argument that he really was a figment of our imagination.

    After his talk, all the eminent philosophers sitting in the front row stood up with acclaim and rushed to shake the hand of a figment of their imagination!

    Academics, like yourself, can construct and deconstruct arguments, seemingly sound but often defying common sense! You are an opaque example of that.

    Were there utterances and onomatopoeic sounds by our very early ancestors standing on two legs for the stars they saw? Absolutely.

    But it wasn’t the word “αστερια”! Since the “original meaning” of this word in Greek is “not of the Earth”. Which would imply an evolution of consciousness and language well beyond animal howls and squeals.

    It requires the recognition and understanding they were creatures of the Earth. And also the higher order abstraction of “negation”. Recognizing the stars they saw were “not of the Earth”.

    The Greek word “αστερια” occurred at such stage of human development as the word attests. Regardless of the “howls and squeals” that may have preceded it.

    I have made the point before that before there was “star” there were “stars” in the experiences of humans. Yet you keep using the Greek singular “αστηρ” instead of the plural “αστερια”. Which in form and meaning comes closer to my argument. Why such ‘sleight of hand’?

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