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The Adoration of the Magi - Botticelli

Etymology gleanings for June 2023

Not that there is a lot to glean, but perhaps it is worthwhile to answer a few questions now, rather than waiting for another harvest. As usual, I’ll leave without comment the remarks that informed me about something I did not know. I can only express my gratitude to those who cite the words from all kinds of dialects and languages, such as pertain to the topics under discussion.

Robert Burns
Via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Gin a body meet a buddy

I would like to dispel a misconception about the pronunciation of some American vowels. In many parts of the United States, the vowel in not, hot, and their likes has lost labialization (rounding), and Europeans tend to associate it with Italian, Spanish, Russian, etc. a in mama. There was a change at the close of the Middle English period and later, known as the Great Vowel Shift. As a result of this epochal change (which, in a way, is a process still going on), mate, mite, mote, meet, and so forth are today pronounced the way familiar to us, though each major dialect went its own way. The shift affected all the old long vowels. As usual in the history of the Germanic languages, short vowels tended to form a close partnership with their long counterparts. For example, in the American Midwest, where I live, the vowel of small sounds to most Europeans like a in spa. (Listen to some rendition of “It’s a small world after all.”) That is why “short o” in hot, cot, and their likes is also delabialized, and foreigners believe that they hear hut and cut. Though such vowels are realized in many different ways, outsiders notice only the most salient features. The point of this digression on the history of English sounds is that in the pronunciation of American speakers, not and nut, hot and hut, cot and cut are NOT homonyms pairwise, and there is no chance that any native speaker would have confused body and buddy. Therefore, the derivation of buddy from body is improbable.

It is never hot in this hut.
Photo via Unsplash, public domain

And one more note on American pronunciation, namely, on the voicing of intervocalic t. In connection with the proposed etymology of buddy (with d supposedly going back to Dutch t) another reader mentioned the fact that now he understands why British actors affecting an American accent say d in words like writer. Yet here too one should exercise caution. That all or many Americans hear d in the middle of writer is a fact. Otherwise (as I noted in my previous posts), my students would not have spelled deep-seeded for deep-seated. Nor would futile have merged with feudal. But it is a weak d. Consequently, in dating, the first consonant and the one following the stressed vowel are non-identical variants of the same phoneme, just as in street, the first t is not identical with the second one. By the way, the voicing of intervocalic t is also known from some British dialects, and at least one-word bears witness to it. Porridge is an etymological doublet of pottage (today, remembered mainly or only from a mess of pottage): t was weakened to d and then “rhotacized.”

Children learn such subtleties with no trouble at all. Adults, by contrast, hardly ever manage to overcome the fateful threshold. I wonder whether they ever succeed in becoming indistinguishable from natives even on paper. Perhaps sometimes subtler, but not quite like them. Kipling once said that Joseph Conrad’s style was better than anyone’s, but one could see that every sentence of his was a translation (Conrad was a Pole). I hope he was wrong and reacted spitefully to Conrad’s prolixity.

Goldilocks in a mess with a mess of pottage.
Via New York Public Library, public domain

The word night

As I wrote in my previous post, night is a Common Indo-European word. Scholars have been debating for a long time how Indo-European spread over the enormous territory from India to Norway and where its homeland was. The Germanic form is, in principle, the same everywhere (Gothic nahts, Old English neaht, Old Icelandic nótt, etc.). The protoform must have perhaps sounded approximately like nokw-t-. The root vowels vary: Latin nox, noctis versus Classical Greek núx-, and so forth. There is no evidence of the borrowing of the Germanic form from Greek. It is possible that the vowel of the Greek noun (u) differs from Germanic a by ablaut, but the details are hard to reconstruct, and they are irrelevant to the present discussion.

Love in English and Greek

I received a letter from a reader who teaches the Bible and wonders why for Greek Érōs, philía, agápē, and stórge English regularly uses love, even though English is famous for its synonymy. This question has often been discussed by specialists in both theology and historical semantics. The shades of meaning highlighted by Greek are easy to render in Modern English, but the Old Germanic languages had few synonyms for “love,” noun or verb. From Old Icelandic, a language with an extremely rich vocabulary, we know elska “to love” and ást “love” (noun; like many other abstract feminine nouns in Old Germanic, ást was often used in the plural: ástir; a phenomenon worthy of attention).   

Nótt, the Old Scandinavian goddess of Night
“The Night” by Peter Nicolai Arbo, via Wikimedia Commons, public domain

Old English did have several words for “tender affection,” but lufu was the one most often used, and viewed from our perspective, it means “fondness, favor; desire; kind action,” and in legal documents, “amicable settlement.” For “love of God” only lufu was used. English is not poor in the words of this semantic sphere: compare fondness (used above as a gloss), affection, attachment, and passion, among others. But love “monopolized” the biblical text and thus deprived it of subtle distinctions. Perhaps the only synonym for love that has broken through in Biblical English is adoration, as in “the adoration of the Magi,” but in this context, adoration is not the same as love. Other than that, an English speaker can love God, children, vacationing in the Alps, and Dutch cheese (clearly, an overused word).

In Greek, no word for “love” had sacral overtones. For “sexual love; passion,” we find Érōs. The word for this concept is absent from the oldest “postclassical” languages; hence the ubiquitous adjective erotic, a borrowing. Greek agápē (feminine) made its way into the Greek text of the New Testament and occurred in the plural (compare Icelandic ástir, above!); it means “brotherly love.” Brotherly love, naturally, takes me to Philadelphia and its name. Greek philía meant “friendship; affection” and became the popular first component of European words like philosophy and philology. The adjective of this root referred to things pleasant and pleasurable. Finally, the noun stórgē, though often translated as “love,” meant “loyalty; devotion” and referred to one’s attitude toward the ruler, one’s children, one’s profession, and so forth.

Several modernized English versions of the New Testament exist, and last time, I mentioned how some newer redactions dealt with the adverb sore. But no one seems inclined to do similar justice to the Greek nouns for “love.” The verb love is also untouchable. I’ll be grateful to those more proficient in Greek and Biblical studies than I am for giving a better answer to our correspondent.

Featured image: “Adoration of the Magi” by Sandro Botticelli, via Wikimedia Commons (public domain)

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