23 September 2015

Nucg Nucg, Winc Winc: The Anglo-Saxon Dairy Business

Those of my visitors who know something about Old English poetry may have realised that the link between the F-word and churning butter (see the previous post) is not just etymological – it’s a literary allusion.  Among the famous Anglo-Saxon riddles preserved in the Exeter Book we find the following one (Riddle 54):

Hyse cwom gangan,    þær he hie wisse
stondan in wincsele,    stop feorran to,
hror hægstealdmon,    hof his agen
hrægl hondum up,    <hrand> under gyrdels
hyre stondendre    stiþes nathwæt,
worhte his willan;    wagedan buta.
Þegn onnette,    wæs þragum nyt
tillic esne,    teorode hwæþre
æt stunda gehwam    strong ær þon <hio>,
werig þæs weorces.    Hyre weaxan ongon
under gyrdelse    þæt oft gode men
ferðþum freogað   ond mid feo bicgað.

An Anglo-Saxon churn lid, with the Freudian hole
The Exeter Book (written more than one thousand years ago) is the largest extant anthology of Old English poetry. It contains diverse stuff, from solemn religious and allegorical poems, saints’ lives, elegies and fragments of heroic legends to comic, somewhat naughty, light compositions, such as Riddle 54. There are as many as 96 Old English riddles in the manusctipt (the genre is hardly documented in any other source). Many of them have very serious religious solutions, but certainly not this one. Good translations of the riddles are hard to get by. Much is lost in translation, and humour is usually the first victim. A specialist can always enjoy the original, but for the sake of those whose Old English is not very fluent I’m going to offer my own translation, for what it’s worth. At least it isn’t a horrible mistranslation (some others are) and it tries to capture the spirit of the original. I also hope it isn’t too stilted (for a piece of Old English verse).

Some things are practically untranslatable. For example, Old English had grammatical gender, and the use of feminine personal pronouns (corresponding to Modern English she and her) doesn’t mean that the pronoun indicates a female human being. It can refer to any object whose Old English name is a feminine noun (e.g. tunge ‘tongue’, bōc ‘book’,  duru ‘door’, etc.). It may suggest a woman, but since the alternative possibility is also probable, the suggestion is much weaker than in Modern English. This subtle ambiguity would be lost completely if she were replaced by it, so I let it stay. Just remember that in Modern English not only ships but also some tools and utensils can be conventionally personified by their users and referred to as “she”. It isn’t quite the same thing as Old English grammatical gender, but must suffice to justify my artistic licence.

Another problem is that Old English is a dead language and its written record if far from perfect. The words in angle brackets represent editorial emendations in places where the text seems to be corrupt. The first of the restored forms, <hrand> actually reads rand in the manuscript, but this can’t be the word intended by the poet. The rules of Old English poetic alliteration demand something beginning with h in the first stressed position of the second half of the line. The most likely emendation is hrand. Unfortunately, such a word-form does not occur anywhere else in the entire Old English text corpus. The context requires a verb in the past tense here. A past tense like hrand presupposes the infinitive *hrindan, past tense plural *hrundon, past participle *hrunden, etc. But what might they mean? Not only is the verb otherwise unknown from Old English; it has left no Middle of Modern English descendants either. To use a technical Greek term, it’s a hapax legomenon, a word appearing only once.

There’s nothing wrong with being a hapax. It’s the inevitable consequence of the fact that words have wildly different frequencies of use (a common motif in my blog posts). In fact, in any large corpus of texts at least about 40% of the words (types, not tokens) occur only once. The same is true of Old English: more than half of the entries in any more-or-less complete Old English dictionary occur only once or twice in the surviving texts. So hrand is not anything unusual, just a little enigmatic.

What about possible cognates in other Germanic languages? We have Old Icelandic hrinda (past tense hratt < *hrant < *hrand) whose precise meaning is known: ‘push, hurl down’ and, figuratively, ‘launch’ or ‘expel, get rid of’ (the verb has survived in Modern Icelandic and Faroese). The literal meaning roughly fits the context of Riddle 54. Most Modern English translations use thrust; I prefer shove because of its greater semantic overlap with Scandinavian hrinda, and also for the sake of alliteration. Last but not least, shove is less dignified than push or thrust, and has the kind of colloquial vigour they lack, which is an advantage in this case. All right, I’ve never tried it before, so here goes!*)

A lad came walking    to where, as he knew,
she stood in a corner;    stepped in from afar,
a brisk bachelor,    tucked up his own
shirt with his hands,    shoved under the girdle
of the one standing    a stout thingumajig
and worked his will;    both rocked back and forth.
The servant quickened up:    at times he was of use,
a handy workman,    he grew weaker though
with every stroke,    strenghtless too soon,
weary from work.    There began to form
under her girdle    that which good men often
dearly desire    and procure with money.

And the solution is yes, yes, you’ve guessed correctly!  a butter churn, that is OE ċyrn. By the way, this word occurs three times in Old English texts: once as cyrin (sg.), once as cyrne (pl.), and once as cirm (misspelt by the scribe). As you can see even the citation forms that we use for convenience represent “Standard Old English” imposed by modern dictionary editors rather than the actual language of the manuscripts.

An early 20th-century postcard
Needless to point out, ĊYRN [wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more, say no more] is the “formal” solution of the riddle. The informal one is as obvious to us as it was to any Anglo-Saxon audience in the tenth century. Other ambiguous riddles in the Exeter Book exploit the same risqué ambiguity: the alternative interpretation is invariably bawdy. Their innuendo-laden humour may be crude, but it still appeals to the modern reader. For the survival of the whole collection we are indebted to Leofric, Bishop of Exeter, a well-educated bibliophile, who died in 1072, bequeathing his impressive manuscript collection to Exeter Cathedral. He apparently did not regard the riddles as subversive enough to be denied the shelter of the cathedral library. Riddle 54 helps us to understand why, back in 1290, a chap from Ipswich, presumably a local dairyman, was called Simon Fukkebotere. It offers us a glimpse into the secret world of naughty associations that existed in the minds of Anglo-Saxon scribes and their audience (and still exist in ours), so we are not making things up when we hypothesise that the original meaning of fuck was ‘strike repeatedly’. Who knows, perhaps the speakers of Old English could use the same word for churning and, with less innocent intent, for [know what I mean? nudge nudge] the other thing.

13 September 2015

The Middle English Dictionary Needs a Fucking Update

Sorry, but I have to comment on this topic.  The news has already spread across the Internet, arousing the interest of several bloggers:

here, here, here, etc.

Somewhere among the indictment rolls of the county court of Chester (1310/11), studied by Dr. Paul Booth of Keele University (Staffordshire), a man whose Christian name was Roger is mentioned three times. His less Christian byname is recorded as well, with minor orthographic variations. The repetition guarantees that what the name contains is not an artefact resulting from a spelling mistake but the real thing: to wit, the man’s full name was Roger Fuckebythenavele. Though Roger was finally outlawed by the court and never heard of again, his legacy will make a lasting impact on English word studies. Not only does his second name move back the earliest attestation of fuck in its modern sense by many decades; it also, for the first time, establishes it as a bona fide Middle English word. Inevitably, the question will be raised again whether fuck is a native English word (a view defended, among others, by Lass 1995) or a relatively late newcomer (as argued e.g. by Liberman 2007: 78-87).

Like dog (attested once about 1050 and then again some 150 years later) and shark (attested once in 1442 and then again in 1569), fuck has a “ghost lineage” – a long attestation gap during which it must have existed, although no record of its use has survived. We do see several occurrences of fucke in 13th-century bynames like Fuckebotere (= “Fuckbutter”, 1290) and Fuckebeggar (1286/87), but in these, the verb seems to mean, respectively, ‘churn, beat’, and ‘punch, hit’ rather than you-know-what. Semantic associations leading from such meanings to the rather obvious sexual connotations of Roger’s bizarre cognomen are pretty natural, though. The coexistence of both ca. 1300 suggests that the use of fuck for sexual intercourse is a semantic specialisation which took place a long time ago. We find it not only in English but also (perhaps independently) in a few other Germanic languages. For details, you may consult the etymological information in the beautifully updated entry in the OED.

Fucking, Austria (probably unconnected)
I side with those who believe that fuck is old and has a respectable Germanic pedigree. The stem *fukkō-, with its characteristic double consonant, is easy to explain as a Germanic iterative verb – one of a large family of similar forms. They originated as combinations of various Indo-European roots with *-nah₂-, a suffix indicating repeated action. The formation is not, strictly speaking, Proto-Indo-European; the suffix owes its existence to the reanalysis of an older morphological structure (reanalysis happens when people fail to analyse an inherited structure in the same way as their predecessors). Still, verbs of this kind are older than Proto-Germanic.

One particularly clear example is English lick from Old Englich liccian < PGmc. *likkō-. Numerous cognates in other Indo-European languages show unambiguously that the PIE root was *leiǵʰ- ‘lick’. The expected Germanic reflex of *ǵʰ is a voiced fricative or stop (*ɣ/*g) resulting from the operation of Grimm’s Law. A different development in this case was caused by the suffix *-nah₂- , attached to the root in pre-Germanic times to yield *liǵʰ-náh₂- ‘lick (repeatedly)’. The root occurred in the reduced grade since the suffix carried the accent. After an unaccented syllable, the sequence *-ǵʰn- changed into *-gg-, which, as Grimm’s Law completed its course, became Proto-Germanic *-kk- (if the preceding vowel was short).

Many historical linguists don’t accept this development, known as Kluge’s Law (discovered more than a century ago but neglected for many decades). In recent years, however, so much evidence has been collected to support it that it seems unfair to call it “controversial” (if not something worse) any longer. The outcome of Kluge’s Law is the same for originally voiceless, voiced and “aspirated” (breathy-voiced) Indo-European stops: all of them yielded a voiceless geminate (double consonant) in the environment in which the law applied. After a long vowel or diphthong, however, the geminate was simplified, leaving a single voiceless stop.

There was a Proto-Indo-European root usually reconstructed as *peug- (or possibly *peuǵ-), meaning ‘stab, hit’ (cf. Latin pungō ‘pierce’, pūgnus ‘fist’, pūgna ‘fight’, pugil ‘boxer’; Greek púgmē ‘fist, fist-fight’). In combination with the *-náh₂- suffix we would get *pug-náh₂- > PGmc. *fukkō- ‘strike repeatedly, beat’ (like, say, “dashing” the cream with a plunger in a traditional butter churn). Note also windfucker and fuckwind – old, obsolete words for ‘kestrel’.

A number of words in other Germanic languages may be related to fuck. One of them is Old Icelandic fjúka ‘to be tossed or driven by the wind’ < *feuka-; cf. also fjúk ‘drifting snowstorm’ (or, as one might put it in present-day English, a fucking blizzard). These words fit a recurrent morphological pattern observed by Kroonen (2012): Germanic iteratives with a voiceless geminate produced by Kluge’s Law often give rise to “de-iterativised” verbs in which the double stop is simplified if the full vocalism or the root (here, *eu rather than *u) is restored.

If the verb is really native (“Anglo-Saxon”), one would expect Old English *fuccian (3sg. *fuccaþ, pl. *fucciaþ, 1/3sg. preterite *fuccode, etc.). If these forms already had “impolite” connotations in Old English, their absence from the Old English literary corpus is understandable. We may be absolutely sure that *feortan (1/3 sg. pret. *feart, pret. pl. *furton, p.p. *forten) existed in Old English, since fart exists today (attested since about 1300, just like fuck) and has an impeccable Indo-European etymology, with cognates in several branches. Still, not a single one of these reconstructed Old English verb forms is actually documented (all we have is the scantily attested verbal noun feorting ‘fart(ing)’).

One has to remember that written records give us a strongly distorted picture of how people really spoke in the past. If you look at the frequency of fuck, fucking and fucker in written English over the last 200 years, you may get the impression that these words disappeared from English completely ca. 1820 and magically reappeared 140 years later. Even the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (whose ambition was to be exhaustive) pretended they didn’t exist. The volume that should have contained FUCK was published in 1900, and Queen Victoria was still alive.

Google books Ngram Viewer

Booth, Paul. 2015. Roger the incompetent copulator is outlawed, 28th September 1311. [Academia.edu].

Kroonen, Guus. 2012. Consonant gradation in the Germanic iterative verbs. In: Benedicte Nielsen Whitehead et al. (eds.), The sound of Indo-European: Phonetics, phonemics, and morphophonemics, Copenhagen: Museum Tusculanum Press, 263-290.

Lass, Roger. 1995. Four letters in search of an etymology. Diachronica 12(1): 99-111.

Liberman, Anatoly. 2007. An analytic dictionary of English etymology: An introduction. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

06 September 2015

A Jan’s Chance: The Fate of Innovations

Imagine that you start a linguistic innovation. One fine day you decide to replace the English word dog with a new, hitherto unused word — for example, jan. As of now, you will say, “I have to walk the jan”, “My jan’s name is Bruno”, and, “The jan is man’s best friend”. You will substitute jan for dog in set phrases such as “go to the jans” and “every jan has its day”. Jan would do its job neither better nor worse than dog. Both are arbitrary sound sequences (their pronunciation does not suggest what they mean); both are short and easily pronounceable. Dog has only one obvious advantage over jan: it is already an established, familiar, commonly used English word. There is no compelling reason why people should find it a good idea to abandon it just like that and learn to use a different word for the same concept. If you are really determined (and perhaps slightly nuts), you can try persuading your family and close friends to humour you and adopt your innovation when they are talking to you. You can bring up your children informing them that your family pet Bruno is a jan. But sooner or later they will find out that everybody else calls jans (including Bruno) dogs. Your experiment will almost certainly fail. Not because the word jan is useless, but because the function you’d like it to have is already carried out equally well by another word. It makes jan a “neutral” innovation — one that could play its role well enough but has no functional advantage over a preexisting competitor.

On the other hand, something similar to this thought-experiment really happened about one thousand years ago. The word docga (the Old English ancestor of dog), coined by an unknown innovator at an unknown date*), somehow became a widespread synonym of the established Old English word hund, and after a few centuries managed to replace it in the mental lexicon of every English-speaker of the time. Although its dethroned predecessor did not become completely obsolete, its frequency of use dropped by at least an order of magnitude, and it had to undergo narrow semantic specialisation in order to survive. Today, a hound is a special type of hunting dog, not just any dog in general. And if you look at other languages, you will occasionally see similar cases of lexical replacement. French chien and Italian cane go back to Latin canis, as expected, but Spanish perro is an innovation (about as mysterious as dog). It seems some new words for old things do catch on, albeit rarely. The chances are slim but apparently larger than zero.

A selfie with a jan (whose name is not Bruno)
A lexical innovation is more likely to succeed if it finds and conquers a functional niche not yet occupied by any other word. In this way it makes itself useful, which may give people a powerful incentive to adopt it. For example, the word selfie made its first recorded appearance in September 2002, in Australia (or rather in the Australian sector of cyberspace). Within the next few years it grew popular among (mostly young) English-speaking Internet users worldwide, slowly gaining the status of buzzword. Then it infected Facebook communities and its popularity soared to the zenith (as did the number of selfies published online). In 2013 the Oxford English Dictionary declared it the word of the year.

How is it possible for an innovation to become “fixed” in a large speech community? How do the the chances of fixation depend on the functional value of the innovation? What is that functional value? What happens to innovations that have enjoyed some success  but haven’t yet reached fixation? This is what my next blog posts will be about.

*) Nobody knows for sure where Old English docga came from. My own modest etymological proposal can be found here.

06 November 2014

Second-Language Reciprocity

Here is a fascinating infographic presentation posted at Lovely Little Lexemes (hat tip to Mrs. B!). A curious (and probably unique) relationship can be observed between the United Kingdom and Poland: the most common second language in the UK is Polish, and the most common second language in Poland is English.

Click here to see an enlarged version.

07 October 2014

Two Is Company, Four Is a Party

Neuter nouns with the suffix *-wr̥/*-w(e)n- are relatively rare in most branches of Indo-European. The only group where they can be found in great numbers is Anatolian. In Hittite, the suffix productively  formed verbal nouns (names of actions), but there are also examples of nouns that had  become independent lexical units, no longer bound to a particular verb paradigm. They had usually acquired a concrete meaning (referring to a thing or substance rather than an abstraction). One of such nouns is Hitt. pahhur/pahhuen‘fire’, evidently an ancient word, preserved in many branches of the family and showing evidence of archaic vowel alternations and mobile stress: nom/acc.sg. *páh₂wr̥, gen.sg. *ph₂wéns, etc. It may be etymologically connected with the verb *pah₂- ‘guard, protect’, but it’s doubtful if even the speakers of Hittite were still aware of any such connection: the semantic distance between the verb and its derivative was already too great.

Outside Anatolian, the suffix does not play any major role. The nouns that contain it are scattered remnants of a Proto-Indo-European pattern of word-formation. Their attestation is very uneven. They are quite well represented in Sanskrit and Greek, but only isolated examples are found elsewhere (the ‘fire’ word, which became part of Indo-European basic vocabulary sufficiently early, is exceptionally well attested). Here are a few typical *-wr̥/*-w(e)n- nouns evidently connected with known verb roots:

  1. *h₂árh₃-wr̥, gen. *h₂r̥h₃-wén-s  ‘arable land’ (root *h₂arh₃- ‘till, plough’);
  2. *snéh₁-wr̥, gen. *sn̥h₁-wén-s ‘string, sinew’ (root *(s)neh₁- ‘spin, twist’);
  3. *séǵʰ-wr̥, gen. *sǵʰ-wén-s ‘steadfastness’ (root *seǵʰ- ‘conquer, take possession of; hold, own’);
  4. *h₁éd-wr̥, gen. *h₁d-wén-s ‘food’ (root *h₁ed- ‘eat’).

Their reflexes in the historically documented languages rarely display the whole range of vowel, consonant and stress variations, most of which were levelled out analogically in prehistoric times. Still, these alternations are reconstructible thanks to the fact that different fragments of the pattern have been preserved in different languages. They can be reassembled into a complete picture like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle or the disarticulated skeleton of a fossil animal.

Got wheels?
A four-wheeled toy from the Cucuteni-Trypillian culture;
the early fourth millennium BC.
Neuters of this kind formed collectives by inserting a lengthened *ō into the suffix. The collective of a count noun denotes simply a set of objects (a collective plural), while the collective of a mass noun like ‘fire’ denotes a particular quantity or sample of the thing in question (‘a fire, a burning mass’). This became one of the derivational mechanisms by which Indo-European mass nouns could be transformed into count nouns. The accent was commonly shifted to the suffix in the process, causing the reduction of the root vowel: *páh₂wōr (collective) > *ph₂wṓr > *pwṓr (a countable neuter with its own case forms such as gen.sg. *p(h₂)un-és). Still later, the distiction between the original mass noun and its collective could be blurred and abandoned, the younger form ousting the older and serving in both functions (‘fire’ or ‘a fire’). The archaic Proto-Indo-European form *páh₂wr̥ is unambiguously preserved only in Anatolian, while the remaining Indo-European languages show reflexes of *pwṓr or its further modified descendants.

Now we can view the reconstruction *kʷét-wr̥ in this light. Supposing it was derived from our hypothetical verb root *kʷet- ‘group into pairs’, the original meaning of *kʷétwr̥ (as a nomen actionis) would be something like ‘pairing’, and its collective *kʷétwōr would mean ‘a particular result of pairing, a complete set organised into pairs’. In the Proto-Indo-European world, there were many “natural” sets of things conceptualised as consisting of two pairs: human hands and feet; fore and rear legs of animals; the wheels of a wagon; the four directions, whether cardinal (east and west, north and south) or relative (forward and backwards, left and right); paired organs of perception (two eyes and two ears). This could have provided sufficient motivation for treating ‘4’ as the prototypical case of an “even collective”. An interesting parallel can be seen in the “fraternal” numeral systems widespread in Amazonia. In the languages that employ them, the numeral ‘4’ is derived from an expression meaning ‘each has a brother/companion/spouse’. At a more primitive stage, preserved in the Dâw language, there are only three “exact” lexical numerals, ‘1’, ‘2’, and ‘3’. The values from 4 to 10 are described as ‘even’ (‘has a brother’) or ‘odd’ (‘has no brother’). The precise value can’t be expressed linguistically, but the words ‘even’ and ‘odd’ can be supplemented by clarifying hand gestures:
Dâw speakers indicate ‘four’ by holding the fingers of one hand separated into two blocks; for ‘five’, they add the thumb; for ‘six’, they place the second thumb against the first to make a third pair; and so on until for ‘ten’ all fingers are grouped into five pairs, the thumbs together.
[Epps 2006: 265]
Once established as a concrete numeral (rather than part of an even-odd tally system), *kʷétwōr (or *kʷətwṓr) was interpreted as an ordinary neuter plural, and – like the numerals ‘1’, ‘2’, and ‘3’ – formally an adjective, inflected not only for case but also for gender. This resulted in the analogical creation of the animate plural in *-wor-es (and the periphrastic feminine ‘four females’, soon univerbated and phonetically mutilated in the process). Note that if the adjective had been formed directly from the verbal noun *kʷétwr̥/*kʷ(ə)twén-, its animate plural would probably have ended up as *kʷet-won-es. In addition to the Greek and Vedic words for ‘fat’, already discussed, compare Greek peîrar (gen. -atos) ‘boundary’ < *pér-wr̥/*pr̥-w(e)n- versus the Homeric adjective a-peírōn (animate) ‘boundless, endless’ < *n̥-per-wōn.

All this suggests that the word *kʷétwr̥ (coll. *kʷétwōr) was transparently derived from a verb root and adopted as a cardinal numeral at a rather late date, perhaps in “Core Indo-European” (the non-Anatolian part of the family) rather than in Proto-Indo-European proper. It is a well-known fact that Anatolian has a different word for ‘4’, *meju- (Hittite meu-/meyau-, Luwian māwa-). Since the jury is still out on whether Hittite kutruwa(n)- ‘witness’ has anything to do with the numeral ‘4’*), we should seriously consider the possibility that the familiar reconstruction *kʷetwores is not Proto-Indo-European at all but represents a “dialectal” innovation which replaced its older synonym in the common ancestor of Tocharian and the extant branches of the family.

If this were a journal article rather than a blog post, I would now be obliged to account for every puzzling irregularity in the branch-specific reflexes of *kʷetwores and its variants. I will spare my visitors such excruciating details, but if anyone is really interested in discussing them, welcome to the Comments section.

And now back to other matters – next time.

*) A witness in court could be denoted as ‘the fourth man’ (beside the two contracting parties and the judge).


Epps, Patience. 2006. “Growing a numeral system: The historical development of numerals in an Amazonian language family”. Diachronica 23(2): 259-288. [a preprint version is available here]

02 October 2014

Only Connect: The Strange Triangle

The Latin adjective triquetrus ‘triangular’ (neuter -um, feminine -a) is baffling. It’s obviously a compound, and it obviously contains the compositional form of the numeral ‘three’, *tri-. What else it contains is anything but obvious. Unfortunately, it’s the only specimen of its kind. The mysterious element -quetrus does not occur in any other Latin compound. It looks as if it could have something to do with quattuor ‘four’. When ‘four’ occurs as the first part of a compound, it has the shape quadru/i-. This form must somehow go back to *kʷətwr̥-, its metathetic variant *kʷətru-, or a hybrid combination of both, but the voicing of the *t is odd, not to say perverse, because its exact opposite, *dr > tr, was a regular change in the prehistory of Latin. The word ‘four’ is evidently such a fickle fellow that it just can’t resist breaking some established rules. For greater inconsistency, the adverbial numeral quater ‘four times’, which in other IE languages (and presumably in Latin as well) derives from *kʷ(e)twr̥-s ~ *kʷ(e)tru-s, shows no voicing. We see a voiced stop again, though, in the denominal verb quadrō ‘to square; put in order, arrange’ and a few related words such as quadra ‘square piece or slice, plinth, dining table, etc.’ and quadrātus ‘square (n. and adj.)’.

Some connections are impossible.
The second part of triquetrus doesn’t simply reflect *kʷetru- (or *kʷatru- < *kʷətru-), because the word is a second-declension o-stem, which means that its pre-form ended in *-tro- rather than *-tru-. The form *kʷetro- (or possibly *kʷatro-, since pre-Latin *a would have merged with *e in this position) does not otherwise occur as a variant of ‘4’ in Latin, but since we are dealing with a capricious word-family, it’s hard to rule out a connection. If it does mean ‘four’, however, why’s that? A triangle has three sides, it has three angles, but has it got three “fours”? It would not be strange if a word for the right angle had something to do with squares or rectangles, and therefore indirectly with the numeral ‘4’, but a triangle can have at most one right angle, certainly not as many as three (the Penrose tribar, shown on the right, would be an exception if it could exist in ordinary Euclidean space).

Can external cognates help? It’s tempting to compare triquetrus with Old English þrifeoþor (sometimes glossed as ‘triangular’ in reference books such as Bosworth and Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary). It has been suggested earlier by one of the commenters on this blog [Douglas G. Kilday] that the Old English word is a loan from (unattested) Gaulish *petros ‘corner’ (< *kʷetros), which became Germanic *feþra- after the operation of Grimm’s Law. This tantalising suggestion, however, can’t be correct. The word þrifeoþor appears in Old English glossaries (Corpus, Erfurt, and Épinal) three times (spelt ðrifeoðor, trifoedur, ðrifedor), and is translated into Latin as triquadrum. One might think that triquadrum is a distortion of triquetrum caused by “folk etymology” (the mistaken identification of the second part as the compositional form of ‘4’), but in fact it’s no such thing. Old English authors took the adjective triquadrus from Orosius, a Christian priest and scholar from the Roman province of Gallaecia (today’s Galicia, Spain). Orosius, active in the first decades of the 5th century, was the author of several enormously influential works, including  Historiae Adversus Paganos, with a chapter on the geography of the world. Here is the relevant passage (Book 1, Chapter 2; emphasis added):
Maiores nostri orbem totius terrae, oceani limbo circumsaeptum, triquadrum statuere eiusque tres partes Asiam Europam et Africam uocauerunt, quamuis aliqui duas hoc est Asiam ac deinde Africam in Europam accipiendam putarint.
[Our elders made a threefold division of the world, which is surrounded on its periphery by the Ocean. Its three parts they named Asia, Europe, and Africa. Some authorities, however, have considered them to be two, that is, Asia, and Africa and Europe, grouping the last two as one continent.]
The epithet triquadrus refers to “the circle of all the earth” (orbis totius terrae = the world). Orosius certainly doesn’t mean that the Earth is a triangular circle, or that it has three corners. He means that the landmass of the world (as he knew it) is tripartite, divided by most ancient geographers into three continents (in this context, quadra means ‘part, division, area’, not literally a square). Anglo-Saxon translators coined a calque, mechanically replacing Latin quadr- with feoþor- < *kʷetwr̥-, the compositional form of Old English fēower ‘four’. Þrifeoþor was never intended to mean ‘triangular’. Its second member is the same feoþor- (= Late West Saxon fiþer-, fyþer-) that we find as the first element in numerous Old English compounds, e.g. fiþerfēte ‘four-footed’ (= Latin quadrupēs).

External support for *kʷetro- thus evaporates, but triquetrus still has to be explained somehow. I would suggest that its second element is a derivative of *kʷet- ‘join pairwise’ with the instrumental suffix *-tro-. When the suffix was added to a root ending in a dental stop, the last segment of the root was dropped already in Proto-Indo-European (this process is known as “the metron rule”). Thus we get *métrom (Greek métron ‘measure’) from *méd-trom (*med- ‘allot, mete out’), and *h₁étrom (Vedic átra- ‘nourishment’) from *h₁éd-trom (*h₁éd- ‘eat’). The noun *kʷétrom < *kʷet-trom would be ‘something that holds a pair of things together’, hence ‘joint, connection’ or the like. There were several Proto-Indo-European roots with similar meanings, and accordingly several nearly synonymous nouns for things like woodworking joints; joint itself comes (via French) from Latin iunctus ‘connected’ (the root here is *jeug-, as in yoke). Tri-quetrus (< *tri-kʷetro-) is built exactly like tri-angulus (a noun is used as the second member of a compound adjective without altering its stem class), and its etymological meaning is ‘having three connections (between pairs of sides)’.

The next post, in which I shall return to the numeral ‘four’ itself, will be the last in this series.

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29 September 2014

Forgotten Derivatives and Their Sexual Implications

What kind of noun is čët? What is its relationship to our hypothetical verb root? One cannot avoid asking such questions when proposing an etymology. A word is more than a root; it has a derivational history. If you add an affix to a word, you may alter its lexical category and its meaning of the base. We already know a good deal about morphological processes in the Indo-European languages, which means that we can tell plausible relationships between possibly related words from unlikely ones.

Let R be a root morpheme. In Proto-Indo-European (and in many of the languages descended from it), a root consists of a consonantal skeleton with a slot where a vowel can be inserted. For example, the verb root *{w_rǵ} ‘make, work’ is normally quoted in the form *werǵ-, called its e-grade, symbolised as R(e). Here, the slot is occupied by the vowel *e. The same root also forms an o-grade, R(o), realised as *worǵ-, and a zero grade, R(z), in which the vowel slot remains empty. In that case, the liquid *r, sandwiched between two other consonants, has to play the role of a syllable nucleus, and the root becomes phonetically *wr̥ǵ- (in the traditional Indo-Europeanist notation, a tiny subscipt ring marks a syllabic consonant).

One of the largest and most productive classes of PIE nominals (nouns/adjectives) were the so-called thematic nouns (also known as o-stems). Their stem ended in the vowel *-o-, to which inflectional endings were attached. In the simplest case, the vowel was added directly to the root; in more complex cases it was part of a suffix (such as *-to-, *-no-, *-tero-, *-tlo-, etc.). Somewhat surprisingly, “simple thematic”  nouns of the shape R(e)-o- were pretty rare in the protolanguage. The neuter action noun *wérǵ-o-m ‘work, activity’ is well supported by the agreement between Germanic *werka- (Old English weorc, German Werk) and Greek érgon; we also have Iranian (Avestan) varəza-, with the same stem (and meaning) but with masculine inflections. Very few such nouns, however, are truly old. More typically, the suffix *-o- was added to R(o), as in *wóiḱ-o- ‘house, dwelling’ (root *weiḱ- ‘enter, occupy’) and sometimes to R(z), as in *jug-ó- ‘yoke’ (root *jeug-, already mentioned in earlier posts).

Marc Greenber (2001) doesn’t define the morphological status of his reconstruction *kʷet- (‘two’ > ‘pair, partner’). In some places in the article he treats it as if it were a root noun (with no suffixes), but the simplest form we actually find in Slavic is represented by Russ. čët (cf. dialectal Polish cot), which appears to reflect a thematic masculine noun *kʷet-o-s ‘even number’. How could it have originated? If *kʷet- was once a verb root (with the approximate meaning of ‘arrange in pairs, pair up’), *kʷet-o- makes sense as a kind of action noun that has acquired a resultative interpretation: by pairing objects together, you end up with an even number of them. (By the way, the verb root is not entirely conjectural: we can see it in Russian četáť ‘form pairs’.) The problem  with *kʷet-o- is that it represents a rare type of stem, at least in terms of PIE morphology. Is it legitimate to posit it just like that?

On the other hand, *kʷet-o- needn’t go all the way back to PIE. The deverbal formation R(e)-o- has enjoyed increased productivity in Slavic. We even have doublets like R(o)-o- and R(e)-o-, where the o-grade variant is more conservative (and has more external cognates), while the e-grade seems to be a younger innovation (with a more restricted distribution).  Thus, the root *tekʷ- ‘run, flow’ has produced Slavic *tekъ (as if from *tekʷ-o-s) ‘waterflow, leak, source’, which coexists with *tokъ (< *tokʷ-o-s) ‘stream, current, flux; (figuratively) course, sequence of events’. The former is an innovation directly connected with the Slavic verb *tekti ‘leak, flow’ (3sg. *tečetь > *tékʷ-e-ti), whereas the latter is a relict form which has drifted away from its etymological base, also semantically. Therefore, if *četъ is a relatively recent derivative of a Proto-Slavic verb, it wouldn’t be surprising if it had an o-grade cousin (possibly with a more “evolved” meaning).

As a matter of fact, Greenberg mentions *kotъ ‘offspring (of animals), litter’ and *kotiti (sę) ‘have young’ as possible members of the same word-family. A connection with the homophonous noun *kotъ ‘domestic cat’ (a European Wanderwort which spread with the introduction of cats) is folk-etymological: the verb may be used of cats, but also of mice, sheep, goats, roe deer, and a variety of other animals. It is used even in those Slavic languages that have a different word for ‘cat’ (e.g. Serbo-Croatian mačka). The verb *kotiti could be an “iterative/causative” built to the root *kʷet-. The structure of such secondary verbs is R(o)-éje/o- (the final vowel of the stem alternates depending on which conjugational ending is added). For example, the Slavic verb *gъnati (3sg. *ženetь) ‘drive on, drive away, rush’ has a corresponding o-grade iterative, *goniti (3sg. *gonitь) ‘chase, run after’. These forms ultimately reflect PIE *gʷʰén-/*gʷʰn- ‘slay, kill with blows’ (a root verb, somewhat  restructured in Slavic) and its PIE iterative *gʷʰon-éje/o-. The verb *tekti (< *tékʷ-e/o-), mentioned above, forms a pair with the causative *točiti ‘cause to flow, (cause to) roll’  (< *tokʷ-éje/o-). Note also such English pairs as lie vs. lay, or sit vs. set, where the first member is a primary verb and the second is its causative (e.g. ‘lay’ = ‘cause to lie’).

The consequences of forming a pair.
[source; © gerald reiner]
The stem *kʷot-éje/o-, originally with middle-voice inflections (whose function was taken over by the reflexive/reciprocal pronoun * in Slavic), would mean ‘form a couple (together)’, hence ‘mate, have sex’, and eventually ‘reproduce, have young’. If so, *kotъ ‘litter’ is not a senior synonym of *četъ (with a hard-to-explain change of meaning), but more likely a separate verbal noun back-formed from *kotiti sę (the consequence of mating), on the analogy of formally similar denominal verbs: *agniti sę ‘yean’, *teliti sę ‘calve’, *žerbiti sę ‘foal’.

The feminine *četa can hardly be a collective (at any rate in the meaning ‘pair’). Not only because it refers to just two things, but also because collectives in *-ah₂ to o-stem masculines are an archaic formation in Indo-European (as opposed to neuter collectives, co-opted as ordinary plurals of neuter nouns and adjectives), and *četъ is unlikely to be sufficiently ancient. But Indo-European *-(a)h₂ was not only a collective suffix and a marker of femininity; it was also employed to coin (formally feminine) abstracts, including action nouns. Quite a few deverbal masculines in Slavic (and more generally in Balto-Slavic) have feminine synonyms like *čarъ ~ *čara ‘sorcery, enchantment’ or *-tokъ ~ *-toka ‘flow, course’, *-sěkъ ~  *-sěka ‘cutting’ (in compounds). Note the familiar morphological formations represented by Greek tómos ‘slice’ (result of cutting) versus tomḗ ‘cut’ (an instance of cutting) – a nice parallel to *četъ (resultative) vs. *četa (an individual instance of pairing).

In the first post of this series I suggested that the stem *kʷet-w(o)r- was originally a deverbal neuter of a familiar type. Before I develop this idea, let me briefly suggest one other possible trace of the root *kʷet-: the second member of the Latin compound triquetrus ‘triangular’. The next post will be about it.

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