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The incomprehensible word “understand”

The incomprehensible word “understand”

For three weeks, we have been examining scholars’ attempts to explain why we say see and hear (the post for 2 February 2022, and the two preceding ones). I would like to finish this miniseries with an essay on understand. See and hear are short and opaque verbs (from an etymological point of view).  Understand is a teaser: each of the two elements of this compound is clear, but why does it mean what it does? Understand refers to a highly abstract concept, and, apparently, something concrete and even obvious must be at the bottom of it, but still why stand under?

Perhaps the most transparent verb synonymous with understand is comprehend, borrowed from Old French or directly from Latin. It contains the prefix com “together” and a root meaning “to seize” (Latin prehendere). Dutch begrijpen and German begreifen have a similar inner form; compare Engl. grip, gripe, and (!) grippe “flu.” Russian poniat’ is opaque to modern speakers, but from a historical point of view it also means the same, and indeed, “to understand” is “to get hold of a meaning, to be able to size up the situation, to come to grips with it.” The Latin verb intelligere goes back to inter “between” + legere “choose, pick up” (compare Engl. “I gather you did not like the book I sent you”). In Germanic, the analogs of understand are ubiquitous. German has verstehen (that is, stehen “to stand” with a different prefix), corresponding to Dutch verstaan, Frisian ferstean, and Old Engl. forstandan (!) competing with understandan. It follows that the verb “stand” could be combined with more than one prefix and yield the same meaning.

Here are a few more examples reinforcing this impression. German unterstehen means “to be subordinate, etc.” and has nothing to do with understanding. Or consider Engl. undergo, alongside German untergehen “to go under.” Earlier, undergo did mean “to pass under.” It has often been said that under in such contexts means “between, among” rather than “under,” but neither combination with stand yields the sense “understand,” even though indeed, when one “stands under,” one may get to the bottom of things, and standing between or among things results in acquiring the power of discrimination. Understand, it seems, must originally have referred to the process of observation and learning rather than the result.

Coming to grips.
(By Irish Tug of War via Wikimedia Commons)

It is of course the prefix under, rather than the root stand, that puzzles us. Heroic attempts have also been made to interpret ver– in German verstehen. For example, Latin prae-stāre meant “guarantee, vouch for,” but its Old High German equivalent fir-stān never had the meaning “to present a case in court” or carried any other legal overtones. Anyway, Engl. understand begins with a different prefix. To increase the idea that at one time, speakers experimented with several nearly or fully interchangeable formations conveying the idea of understanding (or even indulged in learned wordplay?), we note that in Old English, understandan had several synonyms, while the modern verb understand has no competitors in the native vocabulary.

Buridan’s ass: a most discriminating creature.
(By William Allen Rogers – New York Herald, via Wikimedia Commons)

Above, mention has been made of the Latin verb prehendere (here, the root is given in bold). In –hend-, the sound n is an “infix,” an insertion, so that the genuine root is hed (this is by far not a unique case: compare Engl. stand and its past tense stood). The Germanic cognate of hed is Engl. get, from Old Engl. gietan (only the pronunciation of g- goes back to Scandinavian) and, surprisingly, we find Old Engl. under-gietan “to understand.” All in all, Old English had at least five verbs beginning with under-, followed by different roots, all of which meant “to understand.” The various shades of meaning attached to those words are hard to reconstruct, and there is no certainty that our reconstruction, produced from a limited number of examples, reflects the true picture of past usage.

We also watch with amazement how fluid the meaning of Old Engl. far-standan, an analog of German verstehen, was: “to defend, resist, withstand; to benefit; to understand, be equal.” One even wonders whether we have a single word or a group of homonyms derived from several sources. Verbs with the same root and different prefixes and verbs with the same prefix and different roots often meant different things (which is not surprising), but the results are often unpredictable. Compare Modern Engl. overlook and oversee: if we did not know what each of them referred to, we would not be able to guess or explain their meanings. German übersehen means both “oversee” and “overlook”!

One gets the impression that speakers of Old English and perhaps of the other West Germanic languages (German, Dutch, Frisian) were in the process of coining one or more words for rendering Latin intelligere. They played with several roots and several prefixes. The wealth of synonyms is amazing. Such a situation may not be too rare, but usually the differences between the synonyms is obvious. For instance, comprehend, unlike understand, is bookish. Or one may say: “I am unable to fathom this mystery,” but fathom carries special overtones (one fathoms depths). The same holds for grasp. The contexts in Old English texts suggests that some synonyms carried more abstract connotations than the others, but one cannot be sure. That is why the most learned attempts to reconstruct the meaning of under– and for– in such verbs carry little conviction. The literature on the etymology of understand and its synonyms in and outside English is huge; yet no truly persuasive conclusion has been reached. One can only see that all such verbs developed from spatial metaphors, whose idea was that standing in a certain position allows the observer to get to know the properties of the object. This conclusion is rather trivial, but the details evade us.

An overseer: he does not overlook anything.
(By dalbera from Paris, France – Musée égyptien (Turin), via Wikimedia Commons)

The situation described above is especially puzzling in light of the fact that elsewhere in Old Germanic, speakers had no problems with the verbs of understanding. In fourth-century Gothic (a fourth-century East Germanic language), we find the verb frathian (the spelling has been modernized), derived from an adjective meaning “clever, wise,” while the Old Icelandic for “understand” was skilja, that is, “to divide; to separate.” In Modern English, the art of “separating” things, the ability to differentiate and distinguish is called skill, an English word borrowed from Scandinavian. Yet neither Gothic nor Scandinavian had any influence on the way the speakers of West Germanic referred to the process of understanding, and to this day we keep wondering where we stand in relation to the odd verbs understand, verstehen, and their likes. I cannot help believing that in West Germanic, too, some simple, transparent verb existed but was ousted by learned coinages, influenced by medieval Latinity and multifarious attempts to find a proper equivalent of intelligere—an example of relatively unintelligent guessing.

Featured image by Sebastian Bill on Unsplash

Recent Comments

  1. Constantinos Ragazas


    Your mention of Old Icelandic “skilja” (to separate) is very interesting and revealing! Since it is almost identical to the Greek word “σκιζω” (to rip apart).

    Showing once again the origins of many European languages to have been ancient Greek! As is also now shown by ancient DNA studies.

    As to the “mystery” of “understanding”, no mystery. It is a word for word translation of the Greek word “καταλαβενω” (to under seize).

    We should not only look at the origins and borrowings of words to give us insight into the distand prehistoric past. But also the borrowing of abstract concepts and ideas.

    Don’t you think?

  2. Maurice Waite

    Intriguing, thank you. No less so the title photo, which made me wonder whether ‘Understanding’ is the name of a Danish naval dockyard, but no, the word is a revolving neon installation by a British artist (yes, in Denmark), intended to be accompanied by ‘PEACE’ and ‘LOVE’, which were, however, cancelled because of the pandemic.

  3. Yosef Kerman

    This is very interesting.
    I wanted to point out two parallels from the Semitic languages. Hebrew ‘amad ‘al עמד על and Arabic waqafa ‘ala وقف على, which both mean “stand on/ over,” can also mean to understand, comprehend, perceive, etc.
    The explanation you gave for understand/ verstehen would seem to work for those, too (although standing over something seems a more intuitive idiom for understanding something than standing under it).

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