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definition of yet OED

Returning to some of the shortest words in English

Five years ago, I discussed the origin of several very short words, the most troublesome of which were if and of (2 August and 9 August 2017). In a recent email, a correspondent asked me to return to that group, saying (quite correctly, as I think) that one can find hardly any information about its etymology on the Internet and in dictionaries. Our sources are reticent for a reason. As a rule, the origin of those verbal midgets is beyond reconstruction. As an example, take personal pronouns. She, for instance, has been the object of long and fruitful research, and some latest stages in its history have been clarified (she seems to go back to a demonstrative pronoun), but the word’s sought-for ultimate origin remains unknown. We cannot explain why once upon a time just this combination of sounds was chosen to refer to a certain class of nouns. I, he, we, you, and it fare no better. Their history has been traced, but their origin remains a puzzle, though the hypotheses on the rise of pronouns read like a thriller. The same holds for prepositions.

The family of in has been reconstructed quite well. Not only Latin in (from en) and Greek en are related to it. Even Slavic v (the same meaning) turned out to be a stub of vun. But let me repeat what I have said so many times: a list of cognates is interesting only as long as it leads to a solution. Why did people, in a huge belt of Indo-European, use a sound complex like en(i) for conveying the meaning it has? When one comes to think of it, language does not even need such a preposition. It is much easier to have a so-called locative case: add some vowel to the word and get the meaning you need. Say domi (Latin: nominative dom-us), and you will find yourself “at home,” literally, “in the house.” Compare the use of English ward (as in homeward). In a rather tasteless stylization of the character’s speech, Kipling (in the novel Kim) wrote: “My thoughts were theeward.”

It is me (it’s I).
(By World’s Direction, via Flickr, public domain)

With conjunctions we can sometimes go a bit farther than with prepositions. For instance, Old English had the word alswā “also,” clearly a compound. Its surviving stub is Modern English as, while German has retained als “than,” going back to a related form. Than and then are two offspring of the same word. German, too, has similar forms, while Dutch dan combines both meanings. On the whole, we may say that we know a good deal about the history of our shortest words but hardly anything about their etymology (that is, origin).

Perhaps the most interesting story (as concerns conjunctions) can be told about the word and. This word looks different from Latin et “and” and Greek énti “still.” By contrast, Gothic and “toward; along; opposite” and Sanskrit anti “over against” are its obvious cognates, even though their sphere of reference is different. And, or rather its ancestor, is, unexpectedly to most, hidden in English answer, from and-swaru (swaru is of course the root of answer). Originally, answer referred to a solemn affirmation in rebutting a charge. On such legal matters see the post for 21 July 2021. Very probably, Latin ante “before” and Greek anti, known from such loanwords as English antibiotic and antidote (antediluvian, as shown by the vowel, is from Latin) are related to and. The somewhat vague spatial sense of the adverb resulted in even greater vagueness in Germanic. The German for “and” is und, the same word on a different grade of by ablaut (compare began versus begun). While reading German poems of the Middle Ages, one notices with surprise that und sometimes means “but.” Of course, if the ancient sense of the word was “over against,” why should its later cognate not mean “but”?

He and she. Totally beyond reconstruction.
(By d i e g o Authentic on Unsplash, public domain)

References to spatial relations are behind many conjunctions, and this is natural: space around us is visible and relatively easy to describe. Later, concrete senses may yield unexpected abstractions. Thus, but (which once had a long vowel) is a sum of the prefix be– and the word that has become Modern English out: from “outside” and “unless” to an adversative conjunction (“if…not”). 

I remember mentioning in some other connection the fact that subordinate conjunctions are a late addition to modern languages. In the not too remote past, people were quite satisfied with joining sentences the way children do (“I went out, and I saw Bob, and he said, and I said…”). This syntax (coordination) is called parataxis. Its opposite (subordination, hypotaxis) is of the type “When I went out, I saw Bob, and, while I tried to say hello,” etc. It owes its development to the influence of bookish culture. The result is that such conjunctions are ambiguous. English as means “when” and “because,” to say nothing of its use in comparison (as good as). It goes back to al-swā “also,” with as being all that remains of that compound, even though also has (also) survived. German als “when” and “as well as” has the same history, while German also means “so; therefore; that is, etc.” Another result is that we have monstrous conjunctions like inasmuch as and notwithstanding. (Perhaps one can write an essay on the longest—and therefore useless—words in our language. The adjective valetudinarian comes to mind.)

The origin of valetudinarian, as opposed to the origin of in, is curious but obvious. We may even say that the longer the word, the more transparent its history. I have once researched the etymology of English yet and found myself in a veritable morass. For the modern form yet Old English had gīt(a), gīet(a), gȳt(a), and gēn(a), all of them obscure compounds (that much was clear). This clear obscure has been often but to no effect compared with Greek éti “still.” As a cognate, the Greek word does not fit the English one, because both have t (by the First Consonant Shift, Germanic t should correspond to non-Germanic d, as seen in English two versus Latin duo). The literature on the origin of yet is huge and hard to assemble, but once I came across a remark by Erich Berneker, a German student of Slavic and Baltic. He, at that time a man of 25 years old, compared English yet and German jetzt “now” (the latter from je zuo; t was added to the German adverb later) and traced both to the combination iu-ta, in which iu means “already” and ta is a particle having numerous secure congeners outside Germanic.

A cagey bird in the locative.
(By Peter Griffin via PublicDomainPictures.net, public domain)

I’ll skip all details, partly because they are too technical and partly because there are too many of them. If professional language historians ever happen to read this blog and if they find themselves interested in the origin of yet ~ jetzt, they will discover the entire story in my 2008 book An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology. But before I finish, I will make my favorite point. The literature on the history of English, Frisian, Dutch, German, and Scandinavian words is enormous (the true word is German unübersehbar “un-over-see-able”) and someone who dares enter the field and even offer an opinion should be informed of everything that has been done in the field. Everything is a hard word. Yet (!) isn’t it shocking to find the most reasonable explanation of an English word among the remarks by a budding specialist in Slavic and Baltic! It was made in 1899 in an article whose title had nothing to do with either yet or jetzt. No wonder, even the best specialists missed it.

Such is in a nutshell the story of the etymology of our shortest words. If someone has more questions, you know where to find me.

Featured image: a photo of The Little Oxford English Dictionary.

Recent Comments

  1. Stephen Goranson

    “My thoughts were threeward.”
    Read “theeward”?

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