January 29, 2018
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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.
January 7, 2017
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Recently I was reading a book by Sir Alex Ferguson, the now retired manager of Manchester United football club, in which I learned that he grew up in an area of Glasgow called Govan. This name gave me pause. I know, largely based on researching the roots of my own family, that the west and northwest of Scotland are the areas that were conquered by Irish invaders in the 6th century. Gaelic language influence is therefore concentrated in these areas of the country.
Considering the likely Gaelic roots of Govan, I made the connection to the last name of one of my favorite singers, Shane MacGowan. MacGowan was born in England to Irish parents and lived part of his childhood in Ireland, in County Tipperary. Surely Govan and Gowan come from the same root? And, assuming they do, what does it mean?
It didn’t take long to find out. As it turns out, Gowan is derived from the Gaelic word for “smith”. Examples from modern Celtic languages include gabha in Irish and gofaint in Welsh. So, the last name MacGowan is occupational in nature (like the English last names Taylor, Smith, Hooper, etc.) and means “Son of the Smith”.
The core element of the Celtic words appears to be gab- or gob-, which correlates with the Indo-European concept of a “lump” or a “piece”. Example cognates that come to mind here are gabalas in Lithuanian and gabals in Latvian. There is even a connection with Slavic languages in that the word for “smith” begins with a kow/v– root, with kowal in Polish and kovac in Slovak being prime examples.
The Germanic language family stands in contrast to its cousins, in that it employs a totally different root. The English word smith is closely cognate with the German schmitt, Dutch smid, Swedish smed, etc. All of these are derived from the verb “to smite”. I find this contrast between the concepts underlying the word in each language family to be fascinating. The focus in the Celtic languages is the material that is being worked, while the Germanic word derives from the action being taken.