Donnerstag, 20. März 2014

Happy Nowruz!

Nowruz is my favorite holiday, because I really feel like celebrating the arrival of spring, and I like how this has been celebrated for hundreds of years in Persian culture as well as by people of various cultural and religious backgrounds.

I want to address the etymology of NOWRUZ, which is a compound word.
Literally, its original meaning may be something like "new day". That the element NOW- is related to adjectives such as new, neu, Latin novus, Sanskrit nava-, etc., is easy to recognize. -RUZ means "day" in Middle and Modern Persian. The original meaning of the word, however, was "light". The term is derived from an Old Iranian word related to Avestan *RAOCAH-, "light", itself derived from Proto-Indo-European *LEUK-(l <-> r and k <-> c sound changes are common in Indo-European languages), and is related to Sanskrit RUCI- "light", Sanskrit LOKA- "world",  Latin LUX, as well as English LIGHT and German LICHT.
The basic root Indo-European *LEUK- "shine", as to be found in Vedic (Sanskrit) ROCATE (with the l having changed into r) "shines" or German LEUCHTEN "shine", is also there in Greek LEUKOS "white".

(Btw, I already talked about the root *LEUK- in an earlier post, in a different context.)

Dienstag, 11. September 2012


Recently, I stumbled upon the word heiligenschein. At first, I didn't know what to make of it, but through Wikipedia I learned that a heiligenschein is
"an optical phenomenon which creates a bright spot around the shadow of the viewer's head. It is created when the surface on which the shadow falls has special optical characteristics. Dewy grass is known to exhibit these characteristics, and creates a Heiligenschein. Nearly spherical dew droplets act as lenses to focus the light on the surface beneath them. Some of this light 'backscatters' in the direction of the sunlight as it passes back through the dew droplet. This makes the antisolar point appear the brightest.“
This is an interesting topic, btw! See also these links with nice sample photos of heiligenschein: (link from 7.08.12).

As a German word, heiligenschein means "halo" or "glory", so both the English and the German language have their native word for that notion and, of course, there is no need for English speakers to use the German word, and vice versa, in that sense.

So why did English speakers take to using the word heiligenschein in their language?
A heiligenschein is a particular optical phenomenon that looks similar to a halo.
And because of that similarity someone introduced the German heiligenschein as a metaphorical expression for that newly discovered phenomenon. 
Maybe a German speaking scientist was involved in the coinage, that would explain the choice of the source language (but I do have the impression that in the realm of physics it is not rare that German words are used for denoting particular phenomena).
I won't leave out another interesting feature of heiligenschein: In German, it is a compound word, consisting of the components Heiligen and Schein, and although the word has acquired its own special lexical meaning, the meanings of the components are still transparent: a Heiliger is a saint, and Schein means glow or shine. 
Native speakers of the recipient language English can't make out those constituents any more, so in English, the word has to be regarded as a simplex.

To summarize the previous description:
The coining and usage of the English word heiligenschein exhibits some typical features of loanwords:
Words of one language enter another language conveying new content, new notions, be it scientifc or technological, philosophical or religious vocabulary (there can be other reasons, but that's for another post).
The words often do not retain their original spectrum of meaning, but take on a more specialized meaning in the recipient language. 
If the loanword is a compound in the donor language, it is probable that the speakers of the recipient language don't understand its constituents any more and therefore treat the word as a simplex. 

Btw, in the 2006 Scripps National Spelling Bee, heiligenschein was the word which eliminated a contestant who finished fourth for the second consecutive year. As this competition whas televised live in a primetime broadcast, the event involving heiligenschein got widely known and is credited with increasing the prominence of the spelling bee in American culture.

Sonntag, 19. Februar 2012


dost  'friend' was one of the first few Hindi words I encountered, and like so many words in Hindi, it has been borrowed from Persian (in Modern Persian it has become dust, as far as I know).
I don't know in how many contemporary languages it has become a loanword as well, but at least I often read it in Turkish internet posts.
Its meaning alone makes me love the word – but for a person interested in historical linguistics, there is a lot more to it – a long history dating back to, roughly estimated, 3,000 BCE, and a rich variety of descendants of the original Proto-Indo-European word in various Indo-European languages.
But how can we know that word and what it meant?

First, we can go back to the Old Persian language, to the inscriptions of King Dareios. With the word dauštar   'friend', the predecessor of dost, Dareios seems to have spoken of his true allies, as opposed to the „liars“, those who betrayed him.
In the most ancient layer of the Sanskrit language, called Vedic, we have a word that is phonetically corresponding to dauštar : joṣṭár 'loving'. As the two meanings can also easily be related to each other, we can be sure there must have been a word that is the common predecessor of both.
Most likely, that predecessor wasn't a noun, but a cognate verb. As we can tell from the suffix -tar-, which is common to both nouns, these words are agent nouns derived from a verbal root.
That verbal root in fact exists; it is to be found in Old Persian as well as in Old Avestan (the language of Zoroaster), and also in Vedic Sanskrit:
The Old Persian verb is dauš-, the Old Avestan cognate being zauš-, and the Sanskrit word is juṣ-.
The three verbs share roughly the same meaning: ENJOY.
Looking closer into the Sanskrit texts, it becomes clear that 'enjoy' isn't just meant to be a passive emotional state elicited by a pleasurable sensation, but a feeling evoked by something or someone that has been CHOSEN.
By looking back even further in time (plus by comparing cognates from even more Indo-European languages), at last we find the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) verb *ğeus- 'to taste', 'to relish'.

After that most ancient PIE stage (which we can only deduce, of course), the Indo-Iranian branch wasn't the only one in which that verb was preserved in several ways.

In our Germanic languages, Old English ceosan 'choose', 'taste', 'try' has originated from Proto-Germanic *keusanan (cf. Dutch kiezen, Old High German kiosan, German kiesen, Old Nordic kjosa , and the like in other Germanic languages), which of course has descended from the same PIE base *ğeus-, and has eventually become our choose (somehow choice is also related to it, btw).

The Romance languages have preserved that ancient Indo-European verb as well. Latin gustare 'taste', 'take a little of' is cognate to the verbs discussed above and a descendant of *ğeus- ., with several modern verbs (and nouns) originating from it, e.g. Spanish gustar.
It is obvious that the semantic development of the root takes various directions in the respective language families, may it be 'choose' or 'try' in the Germanic languages, and often 'taste' in Romance.
So English choose, Persian/Hindi/Turkish dost  and Spanish gustar  (plus many more words in other languages) all originate from a common ancestor, the PIE word *ğeus- 'taste', 'relish'.
Because it fits with this post in a way, at last a link to a wonderful song: Manu Chao, Me gustas tú

Donnerstag, 6. Oktober 2011

Vṛddhi - a special method of word derivation in Old Indo-Aryan

OIA mṛgá-
mṛgá-, '(wild) animal' is an old Indian noun, already appearing in the Ṛgveda, the most ancient Indian book of religious hymns.
When mṛgá- is meant to refer to a particular class of animals, it is used alongside different epiteths, e.g. mṛgá- mahiṣá- 'huge animal' for 'buffalo', mṛgá- hastín-, 'animal with a hand', for 'elephant', etc.
In phonologically different shapes, the noun exists also in several Iranian languages as well as in later Indo-Aryan dialects (e. g. in the Middle Indo-Aryan dialect Pāli maga- m. 'deer'); its origin is still unknown.
OIA mṛgá- in compounds and derivational nouns
Beside its occurrence in the ancient books in several compound words such as mṛgá-śaphá- 'hoof of a antilope' it was also processed in derivational nouns, e.g. Vedic mṛga-yú- 'hunter', and the noun mārga- 'way' ('path', 'track', 'slot') or 'method' (in the Ṛgveda).
Vṛddhi-derivation OIA mārga-
Now when we look at mārga-, we observe a special means of derivation, of building a new word from one already existing, which is different from derivational words with a suffix as mṛga-yú-.
Like our modern Indo-European languages English and German, the ancient Indian languages had different means of building new words out of existing ones, e. g. suffixation as in English shy-ness (a noun derived from an adjective), and prefixation, e. g. German ver-brauchen, but the ancient Indians also used methods of derivation neither modern English nor German do know any more – but which once have been used in these languages' predecessors, too.
The special means of derivation found in mārga- is named by a Sanskrit term Vṛddhi, 'growth'. It is marked by lengthening of the root vowel, which in Old Indian means to add double a to the root at the earliest possible point of the word (e.g., in mārga- ṛ + a +a gives ār) (there is a special system of vowel gradation in Old Indian, where the vowels a, i, u, and are being upgraded by adding -a- to the basic vowel, and again, by adding another a, used mainly as a no longer productive means of derivation, like the Ablaut in English and German irregular verbs).
The meaning of words such as mārga- which contained Vṛddhi was affiliation or belonging in relation to the source of the derivation, sometimes in a more narrow, sometimes in a wider sense.
During the history of the Indian languages, the derivational device of Vṛddhi has been abundantly applied and used to enlargen and enrich the lexicon.

Here I'll show only a few of its many, many forms of use:
Vṛddhi has been applied for marking the descendant(s) of an ancestor:
The children and descendants of Bharata, an ancient emperor according to Indian mythology, were called Bhāratas, and India's indigenous name is Bhārat, 'land of the Bhāratas'
Vṛddhi is also being used when speaking of languages:
At the time of the Buddha, there was an Indian territory called Magadha; the language that was supposedly spoken in that region is called Māgadhī (maybe you noticed that not only the root vowel, but also the suffix has been changed here; that is not seldom the case!).

Vṛddhi wasn’t used in the Indian languages only; there is evidence it was also applied in other Indo-European language families – which indicates that it had already been a morphological device in the Proto-Indo-European language (PIE).
I'll give you a very short glimpse of traces of Vṛddhi in another Indo-European language:
The German word Huhn 'hen' is an ancient Vṛddhi-derivation of the noun Hahn 'cock' (the predecessors of these words, of course); Huhn then meant 'that belonging to the Hahn'.
Also, the modern German word for 'brother-in-law', Schwager', was once formed as a Vṛddhi-derivation of the now obsolete word for 'father-in-law': Schwäher. This word originates from the Proto-Indo-European noun *sṷéḱuro-s, while the Vṛddhi-formation *su̯ēkurós- (note the long vowel and the shift of the accent) ('Schwager' = 'brother-in-law') is most probably of Germanic origin.

I won't leave out the Old Indian noun devá- 'god', 'heavenly', 'belonging to the bright heaven' here.
Its alleged Indo-European form *deiuó- is in fact a Vṛddhi-derivation of PIE *div-, 'heaven', 'god of heaven', 'day' from which the Greek word Zeus as well as the Latin Jupiter and our word day originate.
There is a lot more to say about this root *div-, but that would be a long new post.

Now we come back to
mṛgá- and mārga- and how I came across them:
I didn’t find mārga- in a linguistical account or in an old Vedic text, but in a Sanskrit poem of the great Indian poet Kalidāsa (who lived around 500 CE, that is more than 2,000 years later than the redaction oft he gveda ), in his poem Kumārasambhava. In the introductory verses oft he poem, Kalidāsa describes in abundant metaphors the mountains of the Himālaya and the ways of its inhabitants. In this context mārga- is the path of the wild animals.
Here one verse (translated by me):
"...[in the Himālaya] where the Kirātas [a tribe of hunters] can still follow the PATH (mārga-) of the lions because of the pearls that had fallen off their claws, although they won’t find the blood red coloured traces of the elephants which have been washed away by the falling snow"(Kumārasambhava 1/6).
The word mārga- is still alive, not only in classical Sanskrit as in Kalidāsa’s poetry, but also in the New Indo-Aryan (NIA) language Hindi.
There the word is mārg, ‚religious path‘, ‚way of redemption‘, ‚method‘ etc., its meanings similar to those of English ‚way‘.
Btw, mārg is a loanword from Sanskrit, it can’t be an original NIA-word, because the ancient sounds except the suffix –a are preserved in it. If the ancient word had developed into a modern Indian word through the centuries, its shape would have changed considerably, as the MIA word Pāli maga already indicates (roughly spoken, in NIA languages such as Hindi, loanwords from Sanskrit are being used in a way similar to German or English using words of Latin or Greek origin: for denoting more abstract concepts, for expressing thoughts in a more elaborate code).
It is quite obvious how the meaning of mārga- fits into the semantics of Vṛddhi-derivations, which are formed to express belonging or affiliation in relation to the basic word. Mārga- is something belonging to mṛgá-, or originating from wild animals, in this case it is the path treaded by or used by the animals, as is still transparent in our example from Kalidāsa.

Dienstag, 13. April 2010

Knowing - metaphorically spoken

How do languages express abstract concepts, such as to know something?

Let us have a look at the means the speakers of some Indo-European languages have chosen long ago, how they used to say "I know":
In the ancient Indo-European languages, there was the verb *weid- 'to behold'. In more than one language of the family the present perfect form of the verb, which can be reconstructed as *woida, originally meaning 'I have beheld', acquired the meaning 'I know'. In the course of the centuries the old perfect form became an independent verb with a meaning different from that of its origin.
The development seems quite transparent and even plausible - something I have perceived/beheld is something I have got to 'know'!

In the old Indian language, we have veda - 'I know' (well known from the most ancient religious texts of the Indian people - the Veda, as in Rig Veda, Atharva Veda...). The ancient Greek language obviously passed the same process: Greek οίδα ('I know' - exactly matching Old Indian veda), the perfect form derived from the before mentioned Proto-Indo-European root, also means 'I know'.
However, in the Latin language the process observed before has either not taken place, or its result has been lost. Latin
vīdī merely means 'I have seen'.

As to Germanic languages such as Gothic and Old High German, Gothic wait , witum and the OHG verb weizen (the NHG 'ich weiß') - are of the same origin and meaning as the Indian, Greek, and Latin forms.

Our observations suggest that a parallel semantic development has taken place:
from a verb with the meaning (roughly) 'to see' via its perfect form 'to have seen' to a new verb with the meaning 'to know'. This has been the case in several Indo-European branches such as Indo-Aryan, Greek, and Germanic. As we deal with one Proto-Indo-European root
*woida , the process might already have taken place in the proto-language.

Abstractly speaking, we find that the above mentioned languages express the abstract state of knowing sth. by metaphorically employing the sensual concept of seeing.

Latin, like other languages, has developed various means to denote the concept of knowing. We find that the word -scire 'to know' has originated (retrograde) from the negative ne-scio 'I don't know' (note that not the positive -scio is the original word, but the negative ne-scio!).
-scio in ne-scio is a form of lat. secui, 'I have cut', the perfect of seco, secare, 'to cut, to part'.
So the Latin language associates the abstract concepts of knowledge and understanding with processes of dissecting, of cutting into parts, of discerning the parts of a matter - with analysis (btw., the greek word analysis has an etymological background similar to our "cutting" words).
In modern German, we have a parallel concept for discerning: the verb unterscheiden. The simplex scheiden originally means 'to divide', 'to part', 'to cut'.

The English equivalent to unterscheiden is the verb discern
from Latin discernere (from dis- 'off', 'away' + cernere 'distinguish', 'separate', 'sift'). It refers to the same notion - both in English and in Latin!

Up to now, we have found two quite divergent metaphorical concepts of
knowing: to see refers to a mental concept which is partly associated with the notion of wholeness, whereas to discern links our acquisition of knowledge to acts of dividing, of cutting apart - of analysis. Two mental concepts - of synthesis and of analysis - they are supposed to be complementary in the process of acquiring knowledge.

A third way Indo-European languages denote
knowing can be shown in the etymology of English to know. It originates from PIE *gneh3- , 'to know', which became Gothic kunnan, Old Norse kna, Old English cnawan, OHG knaen: Interestingly, the Old English word seems to have been mainly used to express 'to know from experience'; it also meant 'to be able'. A cognate of this word is the German können.
The Anglo-Saxons used two distinct words for the concept of knowing, witan (see wit; cf. our discussion of *woida above) and cnawan. The latter seems to refer to a more practical point of view, as in the Modern English phrase to know better "to have learned from experience" (first attested 1704). The Modern English Know-how "technical expertise"was first recorded 1838 in American English. So in Anglo-Saxon we have two verbs with somehow complementary shades of meaning, witan used in mainly theoretical contexts, and cnawan for knowledge with practical implications. There was another Old English preterite-present verb absorbing a third sense of "to know," that of "to know how to do something" (in addition to "to know as a fact" and "to be acquainted with" something or someone). Its original perfect participle, couth, has survived only in its negation uncouth. But note that could and can are from the same root; another cognate word derived from this origin is cunning.

There are further interesting metaphorical concepts for "knowing", e. g. to grasp - German be-greifen : we get to know something by touching it, by taking possession of it (compare German "Besitz ergreifen").

I tried to demonstrate by reference to a few examples how languages can express the mental concept of "to know something" -
by means of metaphors from the world of our senses -
with verbs that originally meant "to see", "to cut", "to grasp", ...

The examples should also hint at the historical dimension of metaphorical speech - they were taken from the very confined field of ancient Indo-European languages and their modern descendants.

Sonntag, 28. März 2010


Der Lenz ist da!, German poets used to exclaim when they felt excited about the advent of Spring. The word Lenz has been nearly obsolete for a long time, even with poets such as Goethe, who preferred to adress Frühling.

In Old High German, we find the forms lenzo, längess, also längsing (Middle High German langez), forms which exactly match Old English lencten (cf. also Old Saxonian lentin, Middle Dutch lenten). These attested forms can be derived from a (reconstructed) West Germanic *langa-tīna(z). The meaning of the first element of this compound is clearly 'long'. The second element tīna- is an ancient Indo-European suffix-like formation meaning 'day' or 'daily'. So the word Lenz, lenten most probably refers to the period of the year when daylight is increasing. Literally, we may translate Lenz as '(the season having) long days'.

Now, back to the second element - West Germanic *-tīna: The ancient Indo-European formation is present in the Gothic word sin-teins, which means 'daily'. And it is not only used in old Germanic languages such as English, German, or Gothic, but also in various other old Indo-European languages. In Latin, e.g., we have nūn-dinae, meaning 'the market held every ninth day'.
The suffix is contained in the Old Indian word
madhyam-dina ''midday', 'time of midday'. The Lithuanian language as well as Slavonic languages have diena (Lithuanian) and dini (Old Church Slavonic).
It is clear that our suffix-like element -
tina or -dina is derived from the Proto-Indo-European base *dyeu- (cf. Skt. diva 'by day', Latin dies, Welsh diw, Arm. tiw), which has developed so many meanings, from 'sky' to 'day' to 'heaven' to 'god'.

Our compound word *langa-teina, Lenz, lenten must originally have been an adjective, just because of its Bahuvrīhi character. A Bahuvrīhi-compound always has the meaning of 'possessing' the things/features mentioned, such as Ironheart means 'having or possessing a heart of iron'; Bahuvrīhis are always adjectives originally.
So, as to be expected, in the Old High German phrase
lengizin manoth (meaning 'the month having long days' for the month of March) lengizin is clearly an adjective.

In Modern English Lent or Lenten has acquired a specialized meaning. The Church sense of the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter is peculiar to English.

Sonntag, 21. Juni 2009

Notes on the etymology of TORRENT

The word "torrent" evokes images of gushing flood waters, raging currents of water, sweeping everything away, of heavy showers of rain... so I was surprised to learn that it is etymologically derived from a word meaning thirsty, even dry or desiccated.  It is a loanword from French: torrent, which originates from Latin torrens -torrentem "rushing stream". As the suffix indicates, it is the ppa (participle present active) of a verb, namely the Latin torrere "to parch".

So, what could be the connection between a rushing stream and something which is dried out, thirsting for some water?

Supposedly, the contrasting meanings are linked by the image of a mountain creek or river which may be a raging current in spring, but dries out in summer.

By the way, the Proto-Indo-European word *ters- simply means "thirsty" or "dry", with no implication of waters, floods, and creeks yet. 

In the Vedic (old Indian) language, for example, we have the adjective trshāna meaning "thirsty". The German verb ver-dorren means "dry up", "wither", while the corresponding causative verb dörren means "to parch". There is also the archaic word darren, which denotes the traditional procedure of parching cereals in the oven.