Anarcheologos

The Creative Exploration of Language

Category Archives: Words

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.  

Toward the Future

I’ve been wondering about the word future for a while.  In other Germanic languages it tends to be made up of two parts, the first meaning something like “to” or “forward” and the second meaning “to come” in the Continental languages or “time” in Scandinavia.  Here are some examples:

  • zukunft (German)
  • toekomst (Dutch)
  • toekoms (Afrikaans
  • framtida (Swedish)
  • fremtid (Danish)
  • framtid (Norwegian)
  • framtíð (Icelandic)

Initially, I assumed that this was simply a case of English using a French loan word where its Germanic cousins had retained the native word.  This view was perhaps strengthened by my knowledge of the word futuro in Spanish.

I let the matter rest there for a few weeks until one day I recalled that there is another way to say future in Spanish, porvenir, which follows the Germanic model and can be read literally as “for to come”.  After a bit of research I discovered that the same situation exists in French, which has both futur and avenir.

This rekindled my interest in future and I began digging into its etymology.  I was surprised to find that it wasn’t as straightforward as I had expected.  It came into English through French, which got it from Latin.  It seems to have begun as an irregular form of the word esse, which means “to be” and can be seen in words such as essence and its derivatives.

Before the adoption of future, English had a native word for the concept, toweard, which follows the Germanic model and has some interesting connections.  The second element of the word, –weard, comes from the Proto-Indo European (PIE) root *wert, which means “to turn.”  Both the word and meaning survive in a functional way in modern English as the suffix –ward in words such as forward and backward.    So, in Old English the future was something that one turned into.

However, -weard has a far more interesting set of connections that radiate out from its PIE root.  In English, this is best exemplified by the word wyrd, which is generally translated as “fate” and is cognate with the Old Norse word urdr.  This allows a poetic reading of toweard as something like “turning into fate” which I find appealing.

The other connection that jumps out at me is the German word werden, which means “to become” and is used as an auxiliary verb to form the future tense.  For example, in German, “We are eating” is “Wir essen” while “We will eat” is “Wir werden essen.”

As regular readers will know, I love to keep digging and make these kinds of connections that allow me to consider the different angles and shades of meaning of a word.  However, this “archeological” approach sometimes leads me to miss the forest for the trees.

In this case, it was only at the end of my investigations that I realized the word toweard had, in fact, never left English at all.  It survives, very recognizably, as toward, shorn of its larger meaning and reduced to the status of a preposition.

Nightmare

Nightmare is a half understood word in the sense that the first half is clear, but the second half is not.  What is a mare in this context and what does it have to do with waking up in the middle of the night with your heart pounding?  As it turns out, both halves of the word are interesting and both have remarkably deep and consistent Indo-European roots.

Night is derived from the Proto-Indo European (PIE) word *nekwt, meaning “night”.  This word is remarkably stable across languages and follows a patter of n + vowel + palatal or velar consonant, generally fricative:

  • nacht (German)
  • nox (Latin)
  • naktam (Sanskrit)
  • natt (Swedish)
  • naktis (Lithuanian)

It is also seems to me to be connected to two other words, next and near.  As is often the case, this connection is a bit clearer in German where the words are nächste and nahe, respectively.  Other German words that fit this pattern are nach, which means “to” or “towards” and nachbar, which means “neighbor” in the literal sense of a “near dweller”.

The common thread linking all of these words that follow the form n + vowel + palatal or velar consonant seems to be the idea of proximity or closeness, which fits nicely with the constrictive nature of night and darkness in general.

Now for the second part of the word, mare.  This comes from the Old English word mare, meaning an evil spirit or an incubus.  This word also has deep and consistent Indo-European roots, with the word being mahr in German and mara, marra or mare in the Scandinavian languages.  While there are a couple of competing theories regarding which PIE root mare comes from, the leading contender is *mer, which means “to harm” or “to rub” with the connotation of “chafing”, “rubbing away” or “wearing out”.

Putting the word back together we get to something that seems to indicate an evil spirit in close proximity to the sufferer and putting them under duress with constant, wearying pressure.  Not a bad way to describe something that haunts your sleep and terrifies you while you are unconscious.

In the end, I’m left with thought that the original idea as to the cause of nightmares, a literal demon perched atop you while you sleep, pressing on you, wearing you down in the darkness, is nothing more than a poetic way to describe a phenomenon that would today be described in more prosaic terms using scientific psychological language related to things like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder that I don’t think most people understand any better than they understand the term “demon”.

It seems to me that people in both eras attempted to define and describe something complex and poorly understood with terms that were appropriate to their times and cultures.  Ultimately, though, they are both using metaphors and, as usual, the older ones seem more vibrant and compelling.

 

 

Thrice Greatest: Maha, Machen, Magnus

I have recently rekindled my interest in Buddhism and have subsequently been doing a lot of reading on the subject.  More specifically, I am reading some of the Mahayana sutras, starting with the Diamond Sutra, and I had a realization that brought me both pleasure and some amount of frustration: the Sanskrit word maha, the first element in Mahayana, means “great” and I had never realized this before.

Given that Mahayana is one of the two main branches of Buddhism, I had encountered the word numerous times and had a clear understanding of its meaning: “Greater Vehicle”.  However, I never stopped to break it down and assign English meanings to the parts of the Sanskrit word.  I treated the word as a symbol where the combination of those particular letters, in that particular order, simply equaled the meaning “Greater Vehicle” in some sort of creatio ex nihilo process that did not bear examination.

But when I did break the word down into maha + yana, I saw connections immediately.  The first word that came to mind was maharaja, which means “great king”.  I then began, as I tend to do when thinking about a word, to look for substitution patterns that might help me to transpose the word into other languages within the same language family.

I knew from prior research that consonants that sound “softer” in Sanskrit tend to sound “harder” in European languages so I focused on the “h” in the middle of maha and turned it into two phonetically related “hard” sounds of “k” and “g” and came up with some cognates immediately.

I first tried the m-k root and (focusing on sound) came up with the German words Macht and machen, which mean “power” and “to make or do” respectively.   This makes sense in that maha doesn’t seem to mean “great” in the sense of “large”, but rather in terms of power.  In other words, something is great because it can do things.

Using the m-g root, the the first word that came to mind was megin, the Old Norse word for “power” or “strength”.  My mind then jumped to the Greek word mega, which means “great”.  In the modern world, this is a word that all English speakers understand intuitively, from Megabucks to Megalopolis to Megabus.  For those with a more esoteric bent, one need only think of Aleister Crowley describing himself as “To Mega Therion,” or “The Great Beast.”

At this point, other associations started popping up, such as the Latin word magnus, which also means “great.”  From this we get the reasonably common Scandinavian boy’s name Magnus, which was an element in the name of the Holy Roman Emperor Karl Magnus, better known by the French version of his name, Charlemagne.  Again, he was given this name because of his deeds in uniting large parts of western Europe under the banner of the Holy Roman Empire, not for his physical size.

Finally, given my interest in ancient, medieval and Renaissance philosophy, I hit on the legendary Greco-Egyptian figure Hermes Trismegistus, or “Thrice-Greatest” Hermes.  Here again, greatness is a byproduct of power, of the ability to do things.  In the case of Hermes, there is no general agreement among scholars as to why he was called “thrice greatest”, but competing theories include his mastery of the three areas of magical wisdom in the ancient world, alchemy, astrology and theurgy, and the three most exalted roles in society, those of philosopher, priest and king.

In most ways, this is a tidy and satisfying conclusion to my investigation of maha, and I am once again left with an admiration for the beauty and clarity of Sanskrit.  Every time I encounter transliterated Sanskrit I am pleasantly surprised at how much intuitive sense it makes in relation to other Indo-European languages.  However, I am also left with a lingering sense of frustration that it is so difficult to learn because it uses Devangari script.  Much like Greek, Persian and Russian, the unfamiliar script is a formidable barrier and Sanskrit may remain a bit of a mystery to me, just on the other side of the veil.

 

 

Lord and Lady

One of the things that I find most interesting about analyzing the roots, and therefore, the original meanings of English words is the way in which they tend to change from the functional to the symbolic.  What I mean by this is that English has changed so much over its lifespan that modern English words derived from Old English tend to have undergone contraction and simplification that obscures their original, literal meanings.  These original meanings often tend to be functional and additive in nature, while the modern meanings, divorced from their roots, have no literal meaning and tend to map directly to archetypal images in our brains that, while slightly different for each person, are consistent in their broad outlines.

Lord and Lady are a good example of this.  When I hear the word lord, an image pops into my head of a man who is wealthy, powerful and benevolent.  It makes sense that lord became a synonym for the Christian God in English.  While lady has a few different connotations depending on context, when I hear it connected to lord, as in the formulation “Lord and Lady X,” I think of a similar character: wealthy, refined and charitable.   In both cases, however, there is apparently no substrata to the word; a lord is simply a lord and a lady is simply a lady and everyone understands what those words mean without thinking any more deeply about it.

However, a lord was originally a hlafweard in Old English.  This is a compound word that breaks down into two parts:

hlaf– loaf

weard– keeper or guardian (cognate with modern English warden)

So, lord originally meant something like “loaf warden”.  Things brings a bit of a different image to mind, doesn’t it?  Personally, I see a sort of paranoid medieval petty official, guarding the king’s food supplies against raiders and unruly peasants.

Lady follows a similar pattern.  In Old English the word was hlæfdige, which is a compound form of:

hlaf– loaf

dæge– kneader

So, lady originally meant something like “loaf maker,” bringing it into a tidy, if traditional, relationship to lord.

What I find fascinating here is that, due to the evolution of English over the past ~1,500 years, these original meanings, in all their charming functionality, have been lost and replaced with what I consider to be archetypal symbols.  I don’t know to what extent this happens in other languages.  As I have noted elsewhere, German seems to retain the literal meanings of its words much more clearly than English, which is something I appreciate about the language.  However, I don’t know to what extent German speakers are aware of those meanings on a daily basis as they use the language.

 

 

Regulate

This one has been staring me in the face for a long time, but I didn’t see it.  Regulate is a very common word meaning to control or impose order on something by setting limits.  In other words, to lay down rules and impose punishments or disincentives for breaking them.

What eventually caught my eye about this word is its obvious connection to various Indo-European words related to the concept of kingship.  The root of regulate is reg-, which literally means “a straight line” or “to direct in a straight line;” in other words to rule.  There are numerous cognates of reg- that mean “king” in Indo-European tongues:

  • Rey (Spanish)
  • Raja (Sanskrit)
  • Rex (Latin)
  • (Irish)
  • Re (Italian)

This list is notable in that it is limited to the Celtic, Romance and Indian branches of the tree.  Being a native English speaker, I wondered why we say king and what that says about the differing concepts of kingship within the Indo-European language family.

King, and its relatives in the Germanic language family (König in German, koning in Dutch, kung in Swedish, konungur in Icelandic, etc.) stem from a different Indo-European root altogether, gen-, which means “to give birth.”  This meaning is clear in modern English words such as generate and engender, but there are cognates in numerous Indo-European languages which denote more than the simple fact of being born, but also membership in a tribal or ethnic group:

  • Gente (Spanish)
  • Jánas (Sanskrit)
  • Genus (Latin)
  • Cine (Irish)
  • Genus (Italian)
  • Génos (Greek)

The Indo-European root gen- came into English as kin, meaning “family.”  King is the result of a compound Old English word, cyning, which combines the noun cyn (equivalent to modern English kin), and the suffix -ing.  In this usage, the suffix denotes belonging to or being descended from the noun it follows, a pattern often seen in family and tribal names in the ancient Germanic world (think of the Scyldings from Beowulf).  So cyning literally means something like “member/descendent of the family/tribe.”

Based on the above, it is clear that the Celtic, Romance and Indian words for king are all formed from a root (reg-) that emphasizes the legalistic exercise of executive power, while the root used by the Germanic languages (gen-) emphasizes membership in a group that defines itself through shared descent.

This difference seems to have its origin in the differing political systems found in the cultures themselves.  Ancient Romans, for instance, viewed themselves as being citizens of a state that imposed laws and exacted punishment for breaking them, whereas Germanic tribesmen viewed themselves as being just that; members of a tribe.  Even though the political situation on the ground has changed over time, the ancient distinction between the etymologies of the words remain, much like the silent “gh” in the word “night”.

 

 

 

New/Nine/Now

The question of whether there is an etymological connection between the words “new” and “nine” at the Indo-European level has been debated for the better part of a century based on the similarity between the words in a number of European languages and their seemingly common connection to the root for the word “now”.  For example, the new/nine/now complex is neu/neun/nun in German, ny/nio/nu in Swedish, and novus/novem/nunc in Latin, etc.

The existing debate (a short, if technical, summary can be found here) has tended to focus on the reconstructed Proto-Indo-European roots of the words.  This debate is both interesting and valid, but is, in my opinion, incomplete because it fails to take into account the symbolic associations of the words.  I believe that an analysis of these associations as found in mythological contexts and an understanding of how these associations derive from phenomena observable in the natural world supports the idea that they are fundamentally connected.

In a variety of cultures (at least ones with Indo-European languages), the number nine represents wholeness and completeness.  This can be seen in the nine-fold conception of the universe found in Norse and Hindu mythologies (the “nine worlds” and the navagraha or “nine houses, respectively), or the fact that Odin hung on the world tree Yggdrasil for nine nights before acquiring the runes.  Alwyn and Brinley Rees devote a short section (pp. 192-196, part of Chapter 9) of their excellent Celtic Heritage to the prominence of the number nine in Celtic culture.  One of the connections they mention is that the ancient Celts are believed by some to have had a nine day week, which lends credence to the number being associated with a complete cycle.

But why is the number nine traditionally associated with completeness?  I know there is a long tradition in numerology related to the number nine and I don’t discount this out of hand.  To give just three examples: nine is the minimum number needed to construct a magic square; many significant numbers related to the proportions of the earth and the solar system add to nine; and nine is the product of 3 (a number that is considered special in many cultures) multiplied by itself.

However, I think there is an obvious, common sense explanation that may help to explain the origins of the association of the number nine with the concept of “new”: the period of human gestation is nine months, after which, a new life is born.  Viewed from this perspective, when Odin hangs on Yggdrasil for nine “nights”, he is essentially in a period of incubation, at the end of which he is “born” in possession of new, secret knowledge in the form of the runes.  When the fulfillment of nine is reached, something new is born, and what is new is that which is happening now.

 

The Boys Will Be the Boys

Anyone with knowledge of the history of sports in South Africa and the ways in which it is entangled with its political and social history might be surprised to know that the nicknames for their national Rugby team, the Springboks (Springbokke in Afrikaans, sometimes shortened to Bokke), and their national soccer team, Bafana Bafana (Zulu for “The Boys, the Boys”), are, in essence, the same.

On its surface, this is surprising for a few reasons.  In modern South Africa, Rugby has traditionally been viewed as a “White” sport, while soccer has been considered a “Black” sport.  Despite this apparent difference, both team names suggest a rambunctious, wild, but not lethal, masculinity: the essence of boyhood.  The Zulu term does this directly, while the Afrikaans term needs a bit of interpretation to get there.

How did I find myself in this particular linguistic cul de sac?  It all started when I began using the Duolingo app to learn Irish.  One of the first words that I was given to learn was buachaill, which means “boy.”  I have learned over the years that when assessing a word, one should focus on its core, by which I mean the initial and second consonant sounds, as these are the elements that are most likely to connect to other words in the same language or cognates in other tongues.  Vowels tend to shift frequently and endings tend to be unique to each language group or even each language within a group, so I tend to give the former secondary importance and simply ignore the latter.

So, back to buachaill.  Like many people, I had long ago made the observation that Irish contained a lot of extra letters, both vowels and silent consonants, so my brain automatically focused on the core of the word, bu(a)ch-, and the English word buck sprang to mind, followed by the phrase young buck.  In my experience, this phrase refers to a young man or teenage boy who is acting in an aggressive or cocky manner.  I wondered, of course, if buachaill was connected to buck.

As it turns out, they do seem to be related at the Indo-European level.  Buck goes back the Old English bucc, which means a male deer.  A similar Old English word, bucca, means a male goat.  The fact that a very similar word was used to denote the male version of multiple animals indicates that the root word carried the basic connotation of “male”.

Given the fact that English and German are “cousin” languages that sometimes demonstrate close cognates, but are at other times widely divergent, I like to triangulate my etymological thinking by incorporating Scandinavian into the analysis of Germanic words.  In this case, it worked surprisingly well in that the Swedish word for “boy” is pojke (pronounced like “poika”).  This is an extremely close cognate to bucca if one accounts for two things.  First, Swedish often treats the letter “j” (at least unofficially) like a vowel (see hjärta, “heart” and jord, “earth”) and its function in pojke is to act like the English “i” in forming the “oi” diphthong.  Second, the “b” sound in English and German often becomes a “p” sound in Swedish (see , “at”, cognate with bei in German and by, in the sense of nearness, in English).  Put in phonetic terms, English and German tend to use a voiced bilabial stop where Swedish tends to use a voiceless one.

This is what I love about investigating the roots and origins of words.  Not only do you gain insight into the way related languages developed via subtle phonetic changes, you stumble across pleasing instances of synchronicity that reveal prosaic truths about the world we live in.  In this case, sports teams tend to be given names that evoke energetic, dangerous masculinity and this concept has validity across a wide range of languages and cultures.

If you don’t believe me ask the Tampa Bay Buccaneers or the Milwaukee Bucks.

Boor, the Gentleman Farmer of Yesteryear

I have long been interested in the word boor, in terms of its relationship to its obvious cognates, the Dutch boer and the German bauer.  All three words ultimately stem from the reconstructed Proto-Germanic word *buraz, which means “house” or “dwelling.”  This word in turn seems to come from *bhu, which means “to be” or “to become,” with associated meanings related to “growth” or “increase,” which seem to build off the idea of “becoming.”

While the modern Dutch and German words simply mean “farmer,” the English boor has lost this literal sense and now means “rude” or “uncouth.”  While farmers are often characterized as rude and uncouth, I suspect that the transition that the word boor has undergone, whereby it has become a term of disparagement with its literal meaning being overtaken by a word of French origin is a legacy of the Norman invasion and the corruption of the language that followed.  This does in fact seem to be the case, with farmer entering English in the late 14th century and the negative connotations associated with boor in evidence by the 16th century.

While I always find these types of investigations interesting, a chance encounter with the Irish word bóaire allowed me to consider boor from another angle.  Bóaire literally means “cow noble,” being composed of bó (cow or cattle) and aire (noble, from the Sanskrit arya).”  Breaking the word down in this way reveals another level of meaning and makes clear the word’s ancient Indo-European derivation.  A noble is a noble, defined by blood and family, but in an archaic society where wealth is measured in cattle, a “cow noble” is someone who has achieved a high level of social status, a form of nobility, through economic means.  In modern terms, we might call someone like this nouveau riche or, more in keeping with the word’s agricultural theme, a gentleman farmer.

 

Threat

I’ve been working on a translation of the comic tale Hreiðars Þáttr from Old Norse and stumbled on the word þreyta (the letter þ is called “thorn” and is a voiceless dental fricative pronounced like modern English “th” in “think”.  It has a voiced counterpart called “eth” that is written ð and pronounced as “th” in “this”).  I didn’t recognize þreyta and had to look it up, but once I did, I felt dumb; it is a fairly obvious cognate with the English word threat.

As it turns out, threat goes back to the Old English noun threat, which means “pressure,” and the verb form threatian, “to press.”  Knowing that dental fricatives such as “th” often change to or from alveolar plosives such as “t” and “d,” I considered whether I could think of any other words that fit this pattern and quickly came up with tread (tredan in Old English, troða in Old Norse, and treten in German).  While the literal meaning of tread is “to step on” or “to walk on,” the connection with applying pressure to something is obvious.  Throttle is similar in that the three key elements are present and the connection to the theme of applying pressure is obvious.

This pattern seems particularly rich in Old Norse, where the word þreyta means “to wear out or exhaust.”  Þraut means “hardship,” þrátta means “dispute” or “quarrell” and þrúd (as in Þrúdheim, Thor’s hall) means “power” or “might.”  This vein runs so deep in Old Norse that Þra- is a common element of compound words indicating persistence or obstinance (e.g., þrálátr=”stubborn”).

Based on this, it seems that the concept of the application of applying pressure or force is denoted in the Germanic language family by the following series of sounds:

  • voiceless dental fricative (“th” as in “think”) or alveolar plosive (“t” or “d”)
  • alveolar trill (“r”)
  • alveolar plosive (“t” or “d”)

I was able to find an Indo-European connection to this theme quite easily with the IE root tred-, which means “to drill” and is connected widely to various words in the Indian and Slavic branches of the language family.  I don’t know where I fall on the ongoing debate related to sound symbolism in language, but the “genetic” connection within language families seems to be indisputable.