Anarcheologos

The Creative Exploration of Language

Harvest

Harvest doesn’t resemble any other words that I know, which made me curious about its origins. As it turns out, it comes from the Old English word hærfest.

I did a quick comparison to other languages and made some interesting connections. Harvest is cognate with the German word herbst and the Dutch word herfst, both of which mean “autumn.” While this is interesting, it doesn’t reveal much about the ultimate meaning of the word. It seems clear that the English word originally meant “autumn” as well but over time came to connote the activity that occurred in autumn, harvesting crops.

After digging a bit deeper back in time, I found that the word comes from the Proto-Germanic word *harbistaz (the * indicates that a word has been reconstructed by linguistic analysis rather than attested in a historical text). This, in turn, goes back to the Proto-Indo-European root *kerp which means “to pick” or “to pluck.”

So, the harvest or autumn season is a time for the picking or plucking of crops and fruit (karpós in Greek). This all makes perfect sense linguistically once you account for the sound changes that occurred in the Germanic languages.

Finally, it makes me think that the Latin phrase carpe diem might be better translated as “pluck the day” rather than “sieze the day.” While the latter seems violent and rough, the former brings up a joyful image of picking something whose time has come, like ripe fruit.

Eiríksmál

Translation from Old Norse; source text from An Introduction to Old Norse by E.V. Gordon

Odin spoke:

What was I dreaming       when daylight broke?

To ready the hall             for the host of the slain.

I bade the Einherjar,        up they must rise,

To straw the benches       and the beer mugs wash.

Valkyries with wine          shall welcome a king!

At home I await              the hero’s coming,

The lordly man                who makes my heart glad.

Do you hear, Bragi?          A host of thousands

Hurries here to my hall.

Bragi:

The benches creak           as if Balder it was

Who sought the hall of Sigtýr.

Odin:

Your words are foolish      wisest Bragi,

And well you know why.

The clashing and clanging is for King Eirík;

It is he who comes to Odin’s hall.

Sigmund rise quickly!       Sinfjǫtli as well!

You must go to meet the king.

Bid him welcome             if it be Eirík.

I will await the hero here.

Sigmund:

Why await Eirík                if others may come?

Odin:

He has made red             many a land

And he bears a bloody sword.

Bragi:

If you thought him brave why thwart his deeds?

Odin:

Because I know not,

When the gray wolf comes to the gods’ abode.

Sigmund:

Hail now, Eirík!                Here you are welcome. 

Go into the hall, healthy in wisdom.

One thing I must ask:       what others follow,

Lords from the lightning-field?

Eirík:

Five kings there are          and all I can name;

I myself am the sixth.

               

               

            

               

               

               

               

               

               

               

Death Card

Our years hold many deaths,

A series of bloody dismemberments.

We float above,

Looking at the shambles,

At the blood and the bone;

Dreaming of what we might become.

Sack

I recently came across an interesting usage of the German word Sache, which I had always understood to simply mean “thing,” as in an object.  Given that German has a direct cognate with “thing” in the form of Ding, it should have occurred to me that Sache might have different connotations.

This became clear to me when I stumbled on the video for the song “Meine Sache” by the German punk band The Broilers.  The word Sache appears in the chorus:

Meine Sache, mein Problem,

Ich werd’ nicht untergehen,

Statt der weißen Fahne, werdet ihr,

Meinen Mittelfinger sehen!

Which I would translate as:

My thing, my problem,

I will not go down,

Instead of a white flag,

You will see my middle finger!

So, in this context, Sache refers to something figurative, something that weighs down the narrator of the song.  It wouldn’t be inappropriate to translate the word as “burden,” “issue” or “baggage” or, in a different context, as “responsibility,” “affair” or “business.”  The essential connotation appears to be something habitual that is carried.

This brought me to the word sack, which led me down an interesting path of word associations.  Sack also exists in German with a roughly equivalent meaning.  For example, one way to say backpack in German is Rucksack (literally, “backsack”), which was borrowed into English.

Thinking of the word sack immediately brought to mind the word bag, which occupies very similar semantic territory.  As it turns out, bag comes from the Old Norse word baggi, meaning “to pack” or “to bundle” and does not exist in German.

Though it has been 20 years since I’ve seen the film, thinking of the word bag pulled the famous line from Austin Powers from my subconscious: “This sort of thing ain’t my bag, baby!”  Here we see again that figurative connotation of something that one carries with them, in the sense of a general behavior, i.e., their bag.

I wondered if Sache was used in this same sense in German and, to some extent, the answer appears to be yes.   I love finding these little correspondences between languages, as it shows that while the different words used to express an idea might diverge over time based on a combination of history and chance, often the underlying meaning remains the same.

 

 

 

Ever, Always, Immer

I was struck recently by the way an English person I know used the word ever in a situation where I would have expected to hear always.  It wasn’t that the usage sounded wrong to me, quite the opposite, in fact.  The meaning was clear from the context, but there was more to it than that.  I kept thinking about it for a few days, trying to figure out why substituting ever for always just seemed to make sense.

At first glance the words look very different, but while we often (at least in American English) use them in different situations, they do in fact serve a quite similar grammatical function; both are adverbs and tend to be used in such a way as to mean an open-ended, indefinite, duration of time.

Consider the definitions for ever given by Dictionary.com, which are pulled from the Random House Unabridged Dictionary:

  • At all times
  • Always
  • Continuously
  • At any time
  • In any possible case

In the same source, always is defined as:

  • Every time
  • All the time
  • Continuously
  • Forever
  • At any time

Given that the words occupy such similar conceptual space and, at least in some dialects, can be used interchangeably, I wondered why they looked so different; they seem clearly to come from different roots.

Ever comes from the Proto-Indo European (PIE) root *aiw, which means “vital force, life, eternity.”  This became, over time, *aiwo in Proto Germanic, ei in Old Norse, ie in Old High German and je in modern German.  There are a number of related words that follow a similar pattern, such as every and the German word ewig, meaning “forever.”  Interestingly, German dialects such as Bairisch (spoken in Bavaria and Austria) and Schwäbisch (spoken in Baden-Württemberg and Southwestern Bavaria) tend to be more conservative (i.e., closer to the reconstructed ancestor languages) and their words for ever are oiwai and äwe, respectively.

Always, on the other hand, comes from the Old English phrase ealne weg, which means  “all the way,” and seems to have referred to time from the beginning of its recorded usage.

Dutch and the Scandinavian languages take a similar approach to English, with the  word for always generally being a compound meaning “all the time” or “for all time”:

  • Dutch- altijd
  • Swedish/Norwegian/Danish- alltid
  • Icelandic- alltaf

The German word for always, however, is immer, and it doesn’t follow the same pattern as English and the Scandinavian languages.  As it turns out, immer goes back to the Old High German word iomer.  This turned into iemar in Middle High German and, eventually, into immer in Modern German.  The earlier forms of the word provide a clue to its origins as a compound of ie, meaning “ever,” and mer, meaning “more” (these would be je and mehr in Modern German).

So, while ever and je come from the same root, always and immer have different antecedents but end up in the same semantic space.  I’m not sure that the specific differences in their makeup have any significance, but it is a nice example of the ways that elements of different but related languages end up being combined in various ways to create similar meanings.

 

 

Divination

I became interested in the word divination recently.  I knew that it meant “fortune telling” or “seeing the future,” and its derivation from the word divine, meaning “godlike” is clear, but what is the connection between being “godlike” and seeing the future?

This question is not as easy to answer as it may first appear.  In a monotheistic worldview the answer is obvious: the future is known, even preordained, by an all-knowing, all-seeing God.  However, divination tends to be, at minimum, frowned upon in monotheistic societies and, at times, persecuted.  The picture is more interesting when considered from a pagan perspective because pagan societies practice divination openly and officially.

The gods of pagan pantheons are not omniscient and all powerful (this is implied simply by the fact of there being multiple gods) and many mythological tales revolve around the acquisition of knowledge.  For instance, in the Norse tradition, Odin spends much of his time engaged in adventures and ordeals connected to the pursuit of knowledge.  He steals the mead of poetry from the giant Suttung, sacrifices himself on the sacred ash tree Yggdrasil in order to receive the runes, and, most dramatically, trades one of his eyes to Mimir (“the rememberer”) in exchange for a wisdom-bestowing drink from his well.  In addition, his two ravens, Huginn (thought) and Muninn (memory) fly around the world every day and come back to alight on his shoulders and tell him what they have seen.  Far from being omniscient, Odin is very human-like in his striving to increase his knowledge.

Keeping with the Norse theme, the main method of divination in ancient Scandinavia and the wider Germanic world was the use of the aforementioned runes, via the practice of runecasting.  This involved carving runes (letter shapes which have symbolic as well as phonological meaning) onto pieces of wood and tossing them onto a cloth.  The person doing the reading picked up three pieces of wood and attempted to divine the future from the meanings implied by the runes.  The description provided by the Roman author Tacitus in his Germania is generally regarded as the best source for this practice in the ancient world.  There are also later references in Scandinavian sources such as the 20th stanza of the Eddic poem “Völuspá.”

From a modern, Post-Enlightenment perspective that prizes rationalism and explains the world in terms only of causality, this makes no sense.  But much of the way that our forebears understood their world rested on the belief in another principle, which the 20th century Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung termed “synchronicity” and which he defined as a “meaningful coincidence” or, more formally, “an acausal connecting principle.”  In the context of divination, whether it be runes, geomancy, I Ching or the Tarot, it is this principle of synchronicity that drives the connection between a given operation and the issue under consideration.

This seems to be the key to understanding why monotheistic religions have discouraged divination.  Insight into the subtle structure of the world, of the unseen ways that things are connected, both presently and forward in time, is the province of the omniscient God.  Any human practice that claims to make this possible gives human beings the opportunity to be equivalent to God, which is viewed as a sin and an act of rebellion.

This is an intriguing place to land.  The implication is that in the pagan worldview, people are able to connect to something outside themselves in order to gain access to knowledge of the future, to become like a god.  Divination can then be defined as “knowing like (a) God” or, in the terms of a linguistic purist such as William Barnes, “godknowing.”

 

 

 

 

Freedom

Freedom is a wonderful example of a word that is simple and direct, but hides an interesting root meaning.  It is made up of two halves, free– meaning “the ability to act in a self-directed manner” and –dom which is a suffix that indicates a general state of being.  Freedom has strong cognates in languages closely related to English, such as German, Dutch and the Scandinavian tongues:

  • Freiheit (German)
  • Vrijheid (Dutch)
  • Frihet (Norwegian and Swedish)
  • Frihed (Danish)
  • Frelsi (Icelandic)

The interesting part of freedom is the first part, free-.  In looking at the word and the list of cognates above, there is a very clear pattern of f+r+ei/i/e at play.  These vowels are known in phonetics as “front vowels” since the tongue is in the front of the mouth when one makes their sounds.  This pattern is also found in words from these same languages such as friend (Freund in German) and the Norse gods Frey, Freya and Frigg, all of which have connections to fertility and love.

I started tracing the f+r+front vowel root back within the Germanic languages and found that the pattern goes all the way back to the reconstructed Proto-Germanic *friaz and Proto-Indo European root *pri-, which both mean “love.”  This is the same root from which the Sanskrit word प्रिय (priya), which means “dear” or “beloved,” comes and is the source of the modern name Priyanka.

The interesting question here is how a word connected to the concept of love came to be defined as a lack of restriction.  The best explanation I have seen for this is that the word meaning “love” came also to mean “not in bondage” because it was applied to members of one’s family in societies that practiced slavery.   In other words, one’s household might contain two types of people, family and friends (those who are free) and slaves (those who are unfree).

This sense of duality seems to hang around freedom, which is often posited as being one half of a pair, with the other side of the coin being responsibility.  This is expressed succinctly in the famous line by Eleanor Roosevelt that, “With freedom comes responsibility,” and, more poetically, by the 20th century rocket scientist and occultist Jack Parsons in the title of his essay, Freedom Is A Two-Edged Sword.

This sense of freedom being paired with responsibility ties in nicely with the other themes of love and a lack of restriction.  It seems that freedom might be defined as the state of being loved, unrestricted and responsible for oneself.  It does not exist on its own, like a chair or a book, but in opposition to its antithesis: indifference, restriction and dependence.

 

 

Raven=Crow

At first glance, the words raven and crow don’t appear to have anything in common, despite describing closely related birds.  I started looking into them because I encountered two different translations of the Welsh name Brân, as in the legendary King of Britain, Brân the Blessed.  Some sources translated Brân as “raven” and others as “crow.”  Given that I thought they were two different birds, this seemed strange.  We distinguish between them in English, is that not the case in other languages?

I decided to investigate the Germanic and Romance language families, as well as Welsh.  For good measure, I also looked into Greek because I was interested to see how it related to the others.  Below is a list of what I found:

  • Raven / Crow– English
  • Rabe / Krähe– German
  • Raaf / Kraai– Dutch and Afrikaans
  • Ravn / Kråke– Norwegian and Danish
  • Korp / Kråka– Swedish
  • Hrafn / Krár– Icelandic
  • Cuervo / Cuervo– Spanish
  • Corbeau / Corbeau– French
  • Corvo / Corvo– Italian
  • Cigfran / Brân– Welsh
  • Koráki / Koráki– Greek

A few things jump out at me about this list:

  • The Germanic languages distinguish between the two types of birds but the Romance languages and Greek do not.
  • The Germanic and Romance words are very different, with the exception of korp for “raven” in Swedish.  This is clearly a loanword, likely from Latin.
  • Welsh also distinguishes between the birds, but the relationship of these words to the Germanic and Romance terms is a bit opaque.
  • Icelandic, being the most conservative (i.e., being the least changed from its “ancestor” language, in this case Old Norse) seems to hold the key to unlocking the connection.

What I noticed about Icelandic is the seemingly vestigial “h” on the front of hrafn.  This “h before r” pattern comes from Old Norse and may be a feature of Proto-Germanic, since it existed in Old English as well, where the word was hræfn.  While other Scandinavian languages dropped the “h” where it proceeded “r” as they evolved, Icelandic did not.  This was the clue I needed to get to the bottom of the connection between raven and crow.

The reason why the “h” is important is that a shift known as Grimm’s Law occurred over time where the initial “k” sound found in most branches of the Indo-European language became an “h” in the Germanic languages.  To give a relatively well known example of this, the “h” sound at the beginning of the English word hundred remained a hard “k” sound at the beginning of its Latin counterpart, centum, and both words can be traced back to the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European (PIE) word *kemtom.

So, rather than some sort of strange outlier, the “h” at the beginning of the Icelandic word hrafn is an indicator of a “k” sound that has been lost over time.  If one adds the “k” to the beginning of the Germanic words (again, with the exception of Swedish), one ends up with a consonant root of “k-r,” often followed by “v/w/f/b,” which maps very well to examples from both the Germanic and Romance language families, as well as to Greek.  It is not hard to imagine (k)ravencorvo and koráki coming from the same ancestral PIE word.  One can even see, with a bit of squinting, the “k-r+v/w/f/b” root poking through the Welsh word cigfran and, with a bit more squinting, brân.  Taking the investigation of the etymological root down to the lowest level, one eventually gets to the PIE root *ker– which denotes something that is “horned.”  There are many loan words from Latin and French, such as corner and cornucopia that demonstrate this, not to mention Cornwall and the horned god of Celtic myth, Cernunnos.

The implication here is that, at one time, the raven and the crow were referred to by a single word, but that for some reason, speakers of the Germanic and Celtic languages began distinguishing between them, while speakers of Latin (ancestor of the Romance languages) and Greek did not.  The reason why they did this is not obvious, but I am tempted by the idea that it was because this particular bird had a greater significance in Germanic and Celtic cultural spheres as compared to other areas.

After doing some research on the topic, I do think this “cultural” explanation may in fact have something to do with it.  While ravens and crows have figured as psychopomps associated with war, death, the otherworld and prophecy in a variety of cultures around the world, it is notable that in some cultures their role exceeds that of helper and they become equated with particular gods.

For example, in Greek mythology, Apollo uses ravens as messengers.  In Norse mythology, Odin also has ravens, Huginn and Muninn, usually translated as “thought” and “memory,” who fly around the world on a daily basis and come back to alight on his shoulders and tell him what they have seen.  The messenger theme found in Greek mythology is clearly present in the Norse myth, but Odin’s connection with his ravens goes much further; they appear to be extensions of his mind.  The connection is so strong, in fact, that one of his nicknames is hrafnagud, or “ravengoð.”

Similarly, in Irish mythology, the goddesses Badb, Morrigan and Macha turn themselves into crows and, as noted above, Brân the Blessed’s name literally means “crow.”

In the end, I’m left with the intriguing notion that the Germanic and Celtic peoples, as distinct from their neighbors to the south, developed more elaborate ways of talking about these birds because they figured heavily in their respective mythologies in connection with gods.  Further, it appears that the importance of ravens/crows developed within the Germanic and Celtic cultural contexts, as opposed to Indo-European, since only the Germanic and Celtic languages distinguish between them.

Sunyata

As I have been diving back into Buddhism, I am struck by how much my understanding of the idea of sunyata, the Sanskrit word usually translated as “emptiness,” has changed over the years, particularly in relation to meditation.  In the past I have interpreted the concept not so much as a nihilistic “void,” which seems to have been the tendency of many early western commentators, but rather as a point of equilibrium, a perfect balance between sleeping and waking, unencumbered by the contingent, physical world. 

Nowadays, though, I pay more attention to words and I recently stumbled across a bit of etymology that added layers of meaning to sunyata.  In digging for the roots of the word, I discovered that it ultimately comes from the Proto Indo-European PIE) root *svi– meaning “hollow.” 

This is interesting because the connotation of “hollow” is a bit different from “empty” and “void.”  In modern English, “empty” seems to be a general word for something being missing or lacking.  A cup can be empty, but so can a room or a head or a million other things.  And “void” seems to be used as an intensifier to indicate a sort of extreme form of absence, generally resulting from an action.  One “voids” a sale because a mistake was made, for example.

A better translation of sunyata might be “hollowness.”  If something is “hollow” it implies that there is an outer casing or shell that contains empty space within it.  In terms of meditation, this connotes not so much the total annihilation of the self implied in the terms “empty” and “void” but rather the opening up of space within.     

Here is where sunyata really gets interesting.  The root *svi– caught my eye because it contains two letters whose pronunciation and spelling toggle back and forth in different languages, “s” (often pronounced like “sh”) and “v” (often written or pronounced like “w” or represented by a vowel combination like “ui” or “eu.”  I began looking for words that had the rough form of “s/sh+w/v/ui” and came up with two observations.  

First, words that follow this pattern tend to focus on motion or change: swift, sweep, swoop, swell, swing, etc.  Second, the most revealing word in this cluster, schwanger, comes from German and means “pregnant.”  So now we are dealing with a linguistic complex that includes both the sense of “hollowness,” as well as the sense of movement, growth and “becoming.” 

This is the key to the concept of sunyata.  The “hollowness” being referred to doesn’t exist for it’s own sake and it is not the end goal.  It is a means to an end.  One creates “hollowness” within oneself by removing the mental and emotional underbrush that hinders our progress.  This then creates space for something to grow and take shape. 

One might ask what it is that is being allowed to grow and I believe the answer is suggested by another PIE root in our complex, *s(w)e, which is connected to the word sui in Latin.  In English, this became “self.”  This interpretation may seem counterintuitive and inappropriately Jungian, but there is support for it in the Tibetan tradition.  

In The Essence of Tibetan Buddhism by Lama Thubten Yeshe, the author defines sunyata as the “way you break down the gross concepts of ego and eradicate the self-pitying image of yourself” (p. 34) that arise from being overly focused on attachment.  He then later makes the revealing comment that “The Buddha is within; that’s where we should seek” (p. 41).   

This makes sense on a practical level, that the realization and acceptance of sunyata is a necessary precursor to enlightenment, to finding your true self and the Buddha within. 

Reading, Writing and Arithmetic (and the Dao)

I recently noticed that words related to the passing on of knowledge tend to be built on a base consisting of the consonant combination r-d.   The thought occurred to me when I came across the archaic English word rede, which means “counsel” or “advice”.  I immediately made the connection to the German word reden, which means “to talk”.  Reden is used much like its English counterpart, to refer to a substantive communication, often where advice or counsel is given.  Think of the implication in a sentence like “We’ll talk when I get home.” 

The other place that rede survives in modern English is in the poorly understood name of the 9th century Anglo-Saxon monarch of Wessex, Æthelred the Unready.  His nickname does not mean “ill prepared” but rather “unadvised” or “lacking counsel” and is a play on words given that his actual name means “noble counsel.”  

Following my usual process, I started thinking about other words built on the r-d model (and adjacent sounds like t and th) that related to communicating knowledge and made an amusing discovery related to the formulation “reading, writing and arithmetic.”  At first glance this is simply an alliterative phrase tying together three skills one learns in school that, apparently randomly, share similar sounds. 

But the similarities between these words are not the result of randomness; the connection between the consonant combination r-d and the idea of knowledge and this goes back to Proto-Indo European (PIE).  The PIE root of both reading and writing is *red, meaning “to scratch or cut,” which brings to mind ancient forms of writing such as carving symbols into wood and bone, as with runic inscriptions.  Arithmetic is a bit more complicated, as it comes to English from Greek, but the r-d (or in this case, r-th) base is clearly there, though some sources, such as the American Heritage Dictionary, trace it back to the PIE root *re(i).

At this point I found myself in a familiar place.  I had uncovered an interesting and revealing PIE root and made connections to a complex of words that carried a concept forward from the darkness of the past.  

But something bothered me.  There is another cluster of words built around r-d, those coming from the PIE root *reidh from which we get ride, raid, road, ready, etc.  This other cluster, and indeed the letter r itself, clearly relates to the concept of motion. 

At first, I felt that these two different connotations, knowledge and motion, were discordant until the phrase “to read fluently” popped into my head and it all came together.  The concept of “fluency” is one of motion and the knowledge-related words coming from the r-d root relate to the passing on of that knowledge.  In other words, knowledge moves.  From a different angle, a common way to refer to an intelligent person is to say they are “quick” or “quick witted.”  Clearly, the concepts of knowledge and motion are intimately entwined.

This then, led me to Alan Watts’ explanation of the Dao as “a sort of rhythmic intelligence” (What is Tao?, page 37) which posits movement as being an intrinsic part of knowledge.  Put differently, knowledge exists in order to be communicated, to be passed on and to flow back and forth between people, cultures and eras.