Re: Etymology

Ronald Ross (
Wed, 08 Jan 1997 09:55:42 -0600

Luke McNab wrote:
> With all respect to the above, it seems to me that we are discussing
> apples and oranges here. English is a real melange of languages and
> really has no connection to languages like Hebrew [and to a lesser
> extent Greek] which is absolutely based on etymology and derivatives, as
> I said in a previous post! That is to say, insofar as formation of
> words are concerned. We all know that English originally was a rather
> monosyllabic language probably because of the low uncultivated nature of the Teutons of the day. Civilization came to England and northern Europe via the Romans. The uncultivated Romans themselves had borrowed heavily
> from Greek [most teachers in Rome were Greeks at the start], hence Latin
> is based on Greek. English got "civilized culture" from the Latin; also
> via the French; also directly from Greek and Hebrew [this latter mostly
> in the religious aspect]. The argument using English as an example does
> not really "hold water", IMHO.

I cannot but abandon by lurker status to respond to Mr. McNab with whom
I disagree vehementaly on a number of issues. The notion that English
was primarily a monosyllabic language due to the "low uncultivated
nature of the Teutons" is absolutely indefensible. Anyone who has even
glanced a a basic text of Old English would be aware that it had a
complete nominal case system resembling closely that of Latin and Greek,
a complex verb morphology, case and gender agreement between nouns and
adjectives, etc., etc., and was anything but monosyllabic. The very
notion that somehow a "low uncultivated" state makes languages
monosyllabical utterly ignores the linguistic reality of the world's
languages. This harks back to the *universally* rejected idea that
somehow primitive people speak primitive languages. A cursory glance at
the grammars of peoples of primitive culture will quickly convince
anyone that the notion of "primitive language" is patently absurd, as
any linguist, whatever his theoretical approach, will readily confirm.
Also indefensible is the notion that English is somehow "different" from
Greek and Hebrew because it is a real "melange of languages". Ancient
Greek and Hebrew are no different, although we are less aware of their
diachronic development because of the temporal distance between us and
them. It is simply indefensible that the use of etymologies in English
is any more or less a valid approach to getting a word meaning than it
is in Greek and Hebrew. In other words, neither Greek nor Hebrew enjoys
some sort of *special status* among the world's languages.

Ronald Ross
Department of Linguistics
University of Costa Rica
UBS Translation Consultant