Re: Etymology --[Yet again!]

Luke McNab (
Wed, 08 Jan 1997 11:03:03 -0800

Ronald Ross wrote:
> 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
> 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,
Me alegro oir de Costa Rica. Casi hemos terminado con este asunto!
I'll answer by quoting from another post [by B. Rocine] on the subject,
with which I agree:

"Mod Eng is the *borrower language* par excellance. Whereas the Greeks
would usually coin a word from within Gk by rearranging morphemes with
which they were already very familiar, Eng most often borrows from other
Mod Eng, in fact, often assembles new words from Gk and/or Latin

By the way, when we coin Eng words from Gk. morphemes, done so often in
various branches of science, we do so with the same understanding of Gk
morpho-semantics any ancient Gk-speaker would have had. We then partake
of their propensity for "generate-from-within."

The Eng tendency for borrowing from outside Eng makes our etymologies
hard to track or use. The Gk tendency for generating words from within
Gk makes the study of their etymologies clearer, more valid, more
trackable than Eng.
I submit that when Eng borrows from Gk and/or Latin, even Eng
tend to be clear, valid, trackable, eg. _etymology_ < _etumon_(true
sense) + _logos_(study)...." [End of quote]
Several posters have assumed that I was speaking of English in the
all-embracing sense including Celts etc. People with my kind of surname
and the Welsh and Irish, "writhe and are wroth" at such a denomination!
;-) The context and the mention of the Teutons clearly [IMHO at least]
assumed that we were not talking about this "English" but rather the
Angles and Saxons, who invaded England about 700 AD or so. To quote
Chaucer [circa 1340-1400] or other such Old English is somewhat
anchronostic as we are alluding to the time prior to 1066 when the
Normans brought French culture, jurisprudence, and language more highly
developed than what the then "English" enjoyed. Such monosyllabic
Teutonic words as: sheep, pig, hog, cow, come, go, give, get, etc.
became "mutton, pork, beef, arrive, depart, present, obtain," etc. Let's
not forget that the barbaric Teutons & Goths were not really given to
literature and what is today called cultural civilization. The word Goth
means "savage" and covers a lot of northern Europe in those days. I'm
implying that such Teutons and Goths used monosyllabic words [of course
not exclusively] rather than compound ones, at least in part, because of
their uneducated and therefore uncultivated condition! Much the same
occurs today when one goes to a foreign country and begins to use the
language. The lack of record makes it difficult to say that the entire
language was monosyllabic [which was not what I originally intended to
imply]. Of course primitive language is not all that "primitive" but
very complex as is the "gift" of speech and understanding!

> 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.
My original quote was: "We all know that English originally was a
rather monosyllabic language probably because of the low uncultivated
nature of the Teutons of the day." I do not think this statement
embraces and implies the above conclusion by Ronald Ross. About 75% of
modern English comes from the Latin, French, & Greek languages. The
approx. 25% of the remainder is more or less "Teutonic" with a large
degree of monosyllables. It is said that the "average" English speaker
uses this 25% of English some 75% of the time! Which is perhaps closer
to my original meaning.
> 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.
See the first two paragraphs above.
> 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.
You must have misunderstood my argument. I'm for etymological
meanings over usage anytime!
Enjoy the flowers and salubrious clime of San Jose, we envy you, :-)