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Posts Tagged ‘philology’

JRR Tolkien reported that he discovered his stories and the world of Middle Earth.  Bilbo’s complaint that Gandalf took him home from the Lonely Mountain by much too direct a route is perhaps a testimony of Tolkien’s own experience with the Hobbit and subsequently the Lord of the Rings.  Even though the legends of the elves were sprawling through Tolkien’s imagination long before either the Hobbit or the Lord of the Rings were published, we know that Lothlorien and Fangorn – and the stories swirling and marching out of them (respectively) – were unexpected developments that Tolkien met as he traveled with Frodo and his companions to the War of the Ring.

To many people, Tolkien’s description of his sub-creation is merely a metaphor for the creative process.  An idea wasn’t in mind before and then unfolds faster than we can write it or say it aloud, as though the whole were in existence before we thought of it.  But for Tolkien, there was more literal (and literary) truth to discovering his characters and stories than I would have guessed.  Especially in the Lord of the Rings, peoples and places were dynamically inspired by meditations on words.

The lore-master of Middle Earth discovered that fantastic age in the associations and nuances of English.  English being only the top level.  He didn’t just borrow an archaic term to sound old or fantastic (as so many pretentious fantasy-novelists do today).  Involved in the study was a lot of Old English, Old Norse, Germanic and even Celtic derivations.  Tolkien hoarded word-mathoms, specimens of language passed around and hidden in old literature, buried in place-names.  Believing that language bore record of a people with creativity, wisdom, and art worth recovering, Tolkien studied and meditated on this vocabulary.  Meanings all-but-forgotten, he restored them, often telling a story in which multiple definitions took living form.  Or if the meaning really was entirely lost, like the purposes of some mathoms, Tolkien upcycled them, making all new but deeply appropriate uses of obscure terms.

One of the easiest examples may be Ent.  In Tolkien’s mythology, Ents are shepherds of the trees, ancient forest-keepers.  They do many things, but most importantly they bring down the corrupted wizard, Saruman, by destroying his stone city, Isengard.  Ent comes from an old English word from which we also get the word “giant.”  The word is also associated with trolls, the large stone-people.  Giants in old mythology were credited with writing the pre-historic epics and constructing the marvelous architecture known to the medieval people only as mysterious ruins.  Tolkien pulled all of these things together in the character and origin of the Ents, and in their stone-dominating assault on Isengard.

Perhaps Lord of the Rings was so successful because Tolkien tapped our own imaginations, our nightmares and our memories, our own ways of talking about those things.  We feel that Middle Earth is part of us because it came from the same places we did.  The Hobbit was nursery-fable, not entirely devoid of the word study that made Tolkien’s other work great, but mostly a hodge-podge of mythology and adventure.  The Silmarillion studied not only the English words and Germanic epics at the root of English and American imagination, but also delved into Greek myths, and more obscure stories (like the Finnish Kaelevala).  The Elvish languages have more to do with Celtic.  All those sources were more remote than the wights and wargs and farthings and elves that resonate with the first audience of Lord of the Rings, the English.

Enormous creativity is required to make stories – especially as complex as Lord of the Rings – out of word definitions and roots.  But it also takes genius to hold so many facts and references in mind at once, seeing comparison and contrast, projecting backwards, remembering how the ancient form of the word was used in some obscure poem.  Thomas A. Shippey’s biography of Tolkien first alerted me to this aspect of his work some years ago, but The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary goes much farther.  A word can be a poem or a story or a mythology or just a really-neat sound.  Tolkien delighted in and brought out all of these.

For more information, look to the Letters of JRR Tolkien and the History of Middle Earth (a series of books containing early manuscripts of Middle Earth stories and also containing glossaries and word-explanations for the languages of middle earth).  I highly recommend that you pick up The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary by Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner.  It contains over a hundred studies of words either invented or revived by JRR Tolkien or associated with him and his work.

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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If you ever get that craving to find treasure, just for the thrill of finding, get into words.  Open a dictionary, read the definition that catches your eye first, and ask yourself questions.  What did that one word mean in the definition?  What are the root words, and where are they from?  How is that word related to other words that sound or are spelled similarly but whose definitions you never before associated?  Is there a list of synonyms?  How are they similar to the first word?  What variations do they put on it?

If you get really interested in the hunt, pick up a book about interesting words.  There are many of them.  I have been a fan of JRR Tolkien for years, and his books contain many interesting words.  In one reading of Lord of the Rings, I kept a list.  Even if the words were familiar, I listed ones that sounded good, or that had an intriguing spelling – words that stood out.  Then I started looking up their definitions and etymologies.  There is a book I’m reading now, Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary.  Over half of the book is word studies.

You can learn interesting things, like the history of “ent.”  It comes from old Germanic and Norse words for giants.  In those ancient days when the word was in common use, the writers attributed still older ruined cities and half-remembered mythologies to “ents.”

Or you can start wondering about words.  How is dwarf related to orcs and ogres?  To rocks?  Especially in mythology, and very intentionally in Tolkien’s myths, relations between words reflect relations between the objects they describe.  If the word “dwarf” derives from a word for “rock,” then maybe dwarves themselves come from rocks.

EVEN if you are wrong (as I often am) you’ve started your imagination on a great story.  And along the way, you’ve undoubtedly found some absorbing treasures of words and history.

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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Once upon a time I was a high school student, who chose as her foreign language the fine and elegant French.  Because these courses are all about being practical and conversational, I focused on learning numbers, names of random household objects, days of the week, and names of countries.  These are the intriguing parts of language, probably the least relevant to the distinctions among the tongues.  Days of the week, months of the year, and names of places are some of the most fascinating studies in history and myth, and the migrating peoples.  Here in the United States, we call the “Fatherland,” that great military empire of the 19th and 20th centuries, boasting Kaisers and Fuhrers, Germany.  The Germans themselves call their empire Deutschland.  And upon learning French, I discovered that the passionately peaceful peasants (except during anarchic revolutions) named Germany, Allemagne. 

 

Usually my little brain is creatively making associations and speculations about where words came from, but here I was stuck.  Names and titles are interesting things, because they are only rarely required to have a relationship to definitions.  For example, in studying the etymologies of country names, I came across several (20th century inventions, mostly) whose names meant “land of the free.”  Others seem arbitrary – or even derogatory, bestowed on the people by hostile neighbors. 

 

Join me, then, as we briefly navigate the history of the world as told by the naming of nations.  Let’s begin our tour with Germany. 

 

German is first attested in writings of Julias Caesar, probably the name of an individual tribe.  Speculation on the roots of the word range from a Celtic word for “to shout” or the Germanic gar, meaning “spear.”  Part of the problem is that Germany is an empire, a collection of tribes, so that there is wide selection of names that accurately apply to large swaths of the German countryside.  English (which has had its own fair share of invading languages and kings) formerly used the French (Allemagne, “land of all the men” i.e. “our many tribes” used to denote foreigners – compare to the words alien and else.) and the German (Deutschland – “land of the people”) to refer to the country.  I cannot find out when we started calling the land Germany almost universally, but neither can I discover when the Deutschland came into use, or Allemagne.  Since they all come from ancient tribal names, none is more correct than the other – except that we might want to give precedence to what people choose to call themselves.

 

Dutch, whose name is obviously of the same root as Deutschland, is first recorded in official correspondence from Charlemagne’s reign, when it referred to Germans in general.  It means “belonging to the people” from the root þeod “people, race, nation,” actually sharing a root with another word for Germans, Teutonic (Proto-Indo-European *teuta– “people” or in Old Prussian, tauto “country”). 

 

Interestingly enough, the Polish word for Germany is Nemetsy/Niemcy which means “land of the mute.”  Mute is the way some people described others who couldn’t speak the common language.  It’s rather ethnocentric, but goes to illustrate what I was saying about getting a name from a neighbor.  (It has been suggested that the word barbarian, baby, babble, and infant all come from that same general idea: they’re talking, but we can’t understand them.  And this whole language problem is indivisible from that Biblical account of Babel.  Imagine a decade or so after the tower project was interrupted by the confusion of languages.  One forcibly-separated tribe runs into another with a speech frustratingly meaningless to the first, and they both look at each other and recite a place name, Babel.  That’s the word for it.  History explains; this is why.  How often do you get why’s in these strange questions of etymology?) 

 

Welsh is another name for a country, granted by its Saxon (another occasional word for Germany or Germans) neighbors.  It was used long ago to mean “Celtic” or simply “foreign.”  G’s and W’s are interchangeable due to accents and evolution of languages, so Welsh is actually quite close to Gael and Gaul.  The Welsh have their own name for themselves – or at least they did back when people cared about languages and less about this up and coming global society.  Cymru is that little country on the British Isles, meaning “compatriots.”  Cambria and Cumberland are derived from this name.  The Welsh were kinder to the Germanic invaders, and generally referred to them by their own name, Saxon (adapted to sound Gaelic).  Or this might have been a bitter term of respect, since the tribe seems to have been named for swords, Saxon having the same root (most likely) as saw.  Saxon is a word that shows up almost everywhere, including in those English counties Essex, Sussex, and the Gaelic term for a foreign ruler, Sassenach. 

 

Another pretty word referring to the Gaels is Brythons.  Great Britain and British are the common forms of this name today.  There is a dialect called Breton (which is really beautiful if you ever get to hear it spoken or sung).  Before Christ, Greek records describe the peoples with the term Prittanoi, “tattooed people.”  It only came into official use as a name for England when King James I  (who was definitely the Scottish King, and got the British crown after Elizabeth was done with it by reason of being a distant cousin of that childless queen – and if you think how we got names of countries is complicated, take a look at the ancestry of the famous King James!) called his country that at his coronation.  It was made official 100 years later when Scotland (more properly British by racial descent) was joined to England.   

 

Scotland’s name is so old that we aren’t sure what it means.  The English called the inhabitants of Ireland Scottas, and that was an idea they picked up from the Romans (Latin).  Speculation born purely out of the similar sound says that the term may have come from an Irish insult, “a term of scorn,” scuit.  But I have no idea what that word means.  In Gaelic Scotland is Alba, from the Indo-European for “white,” supposedly referring to the white chalk around Dover or some association with mountains (similarity to Alps).  In Latin Scotland was also called Caledonia, which is “good waters” in Greek.  (Apparently the Greeks and Romans hung out a little more than the Greeks and the Persians, despite each being successive empires of the known world.) 

 

I’ve mentioned the Irish a couple times.  Their etymology is pretty simple.  It comes from Erin, a word referring to fertility of land, and animals and people.  Whether the goddess Eire got her name from this word or vice versa, she was the goddess of fertility in the pagan mythology of the Gaels. 

  

Another country whose name is most likely from a god is Egypt, which supposedly means “temple of the soul of Ptah” (this is Egyptian, and was their name for the city of Memphis), although some say it comes from the Greek, “land below the Aegean sea” which in its Latin form is Aegyptus.  In the Bible the country is named for its founder, Mizraim, who was one of the sons of Ham, the son of Noah.  In Hebrew the word has meaning, “straits or narrow places,” referring to the distribution of civilization along the Nile.  Other Arabic definitions of this word mean “city” or “to settle or found.”  In Coptic, Egypt is Kême “black land” describing the mud after summer floods contrasted with the “red land” of the desert.  (You gotta hear this.  Desert is from the Ancient Egyptian, dsrt.  They should know.) 

 

Ethiopia is a word originally Greek, aithein “to burn” and ops “face.” It was talking about the skin color of the inhabitants.  (However, some sources attribute the name to another descendant of Noah, Ityopp’is, who is supposedly a son of Cush – I don’t know which one from Gen. 10:7 is meant.  But in the Bible, Cush is the name for Ethiopia).  A few hundred years ago, Ethiopia was Abyssinia, derived from the Arabic, meaning “mixed.”  There was actually a mixture of ethnic groups inhabiting that country. 

 

Other biblical places and their name origins are:

            Jordan, named for the river, “descend” of Hebrew and Canaanite origin. 

            Iran means “land of the Aryans” or “land of the free.”  Arya comes from the Proto-Indo-European with a definition of “noble, free.”  In the Bible it is called Persia, which has the same root as paradise, “garden.” 

            Iraq means “between the rivers.”  In the Bible it was Babylon “gate of the gods” in usage, but derived from Babel. 

            Palestine is the Roman name for Israel, literally “land of the Philistines,” and intended as a jibe at the Jews.  Philistine itself is from a Semitic root meaning “invader.”  The Philistines were Phoenician high-tech seafarers who settled on the coast and oppressed Israel living inland. 

 

Spain actually gets its name from the Phoenicians as well, since they had quite the colony and port in Spain.  The Phoenicians called it “isle of hyraxes,” mistaking the abundant hares for the African hyraxes.  The word has changed very little since then.  It began as Î-šəpānîm, was modified to Hispania for Latin, and comes to us today via the French Spagne as Spain. 

 

France is named for a weapon, and actually for a Germanic tribe (who else – named for a weapon?), the Franks.  A frankon was a spear.  Frank became associated with freedom when they ruled over the Gauls.  By contrast, then, to the Gauls, who were essentially slaves, the Franks were free.  Interesting, however, that the people owning and earning the name are not at all the majority of the people traditionally associated with the country of France.  Neither, for that matter, is France typically associated with freedom or weapons. 

 

Italy means “son of a bull god.”  And this one you just can’t skip.  Vatican City comes from a word meaning “to prophesy,” but in a completely pagan way.  The city is built on an old street that used to host fortune tellers and sooth-sayers (obviously before the Christianization of Rome). 

 

Finally, two more interesting names.  One is Siam, which got its name from Myanmar/Burma, its neighbor.  Siam means “land of Gold.”  Siam was changed to Thailand in the first half of the 20th century.  Pakistan is the other interesting name.  Like the demographics of the country itself, the name is a compilation, an acronym made up by Choudhary Rahmat Ali in 1934 well before the region became a country in 1956.  It stands for Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, Sindh, and Balochistan.”  

 

You may have noticed that Pakistan has occasional identity crises, and suffers from severe division.  The USA is in a similar situation, but we have heretofore handled our cultural differences considerably better than Pakistan (our primary blemish being the Civil War over 100 years ago). 

 

“Out of the many, one” is a hard thing to achieve.  In honor of the attempt, I close with the much more widely known etymology of the United States of America.  United and States being self-evident, America is the feminine form of Amerigo, the name of a conceited cartographer who made made his name so prominent on his maps that the people, knowing no better, assumed the new world was named Amerigo.  And so it is. 

 

Thank you to the following resources, from which I got almost all of this information:

http://www.teachersparadise.com/ency/en/wikipedia/l/li/list_of_country_name_etymologies.html

http://www.etymonline.com/index.php

http://www.wikipedia.com/

http://www.dictionary.com

http://www.encyclopedia.com

http://www.interestingunusualfacts.com/2008/09/unusualfactsinterestingcountryplaces.html

God’s Word for Windows

 

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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Apparently one of my favorite pet hobbies is worse than unpopular.  It’s irrelevant to the world around me.  I love to study words.  Their roots and history, and how they got from start to present, are fascinating to me.  When I find the etymology of a word, I feel like that word is full of color and life and intense meaning that before was cloudy and uncertain.  When I write I want the best word not only to say exactly what I mean, but with the tone and connotations I intend.  Etymology helps me do that (I hope). 

In any case, being a linguist helped JRR Tolkien.  Jane Austen and Charles Dickens also employed word selection to aid their plots and descriptions.  The more I improve my vocabulary, the more I appreciate classic authors and their works.  I marvel at the subconscious effect their word choice had on me before I understood.  Their literature comes alive when I really know what their language indicates. 

But today, in an increasingly post-modern, non-absolutist, highly individual world, adhering to one definition for a word is less feasible than adhering to one faith in one truth about one reality.  And this makes debate completely useless.  This makes computerized discernment and classification impossible.  In other words, we can no longer test someone’s words to see what they believe.  Either they sound heretical, but were really just trying to use hip lingo and got sloppy, or they sound orthodox and mean something mystical.  In both cases knowledge of what the words inherently mean, and are supposed to still mean, is no help at all.  In fact, it’s confusing. 

So what we need instead of the computerized classification or test such as evangelicals gave to presidential candidates last century (asking them whether they were born-again; how long do you think it took for the candidates to catch on and learn to say the right thing?  They’re politicians!), is real discernment.  People who have studied truth need to test all things, but not with clichés.  They need to pray for God to guide them with His eyes.  They need to be Samuel, who so leaned on God’s insight, who yielded to God’s vision of man’s heart instead of human sight of the outward appearance. 

There is a spiritual gift, like teaching, like giving, like service, and like compassion.  Through the supernatural empowering of the Holy Spirit, those who have called on the name of the Lord and are therefore indwelt by the Holy Spirit and led by Him into all truth need to examine the words of men and discern spirits.  After studying the gift of discernment, I think there are several reasons Paul calls it “discerning of spirits.”  This analysis provides another reason: in a postmodern culture that defies definitions, discerning words is basically useless.  We need to discern (discover, classify, penetrate, understand, identify as true or false) where a speaker is coming from, and what they really mean. 

The other reasons I have considered are: 1.  Discernment is spiritual.  It has to do with the spirit-world, and can often involve identifying demonic activity or influence.  2.  Discernment of a spirit can be of a message, due to the Greek word (pneuma)’s double meaning of breath and spirit.  3.  Discernment might have to do with insight into the spiritual needs of an individual.  Beyond whether an individual is right or wrong, where are they weak and where are they strong?  What is the spiritual reality going on in their life, behind the service and the teaching or the sin and the doubt? 

I believe God gifts members of His body as needed to see all these things, and I believe there is an incredible need in the Church today for those who can identify the spiritual truth of a situation, message, or person.  These people, using their gifts, are an incredible contribution to the community and cooperation of believers.  They are indispensable in edification.  And in a world where there are many books, many teachers, and much mesmerizing media, the Church needs to seek God’s direction and discretion as they choose their courses of ministry and belief. 

To God be all glory,

Lisa of Longbourn

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