The Hidden History of Words

By Kermit Pattison

AnatolyLiberman1.jpgProfessor Anatoly Liberman had an unusual start for a man who would eventually write the most ambitious etymological dictionary ever produced in the English language.

Liberman was born in Leningrad in 1937 in the Stalinist Soviet Union. His father was drafted into the Soviet army and died fighting on the Leningrad front. After the war, his mother worked as a music teacher and they survived with the financial help of a relative who was a well-known eye surgeon. He was educated in Soviet schools and colleges and spent 10 years as a research fellow at the Academy of Sciences of the USSR in Leningrad before emigrating in 1975. He has spent 31 years at the University of Minnesota, where he has taught more than 30 different courses, including historical linguistics, the history of all the Germanic languages (from Gothic and Old Norse to Middle High German and Old Frisian), runic inscriptions, Germanic heroic poetry, German folklore, Scandinavian mythology, and the theory and practice of translation. For the past 20 years, he has been writing an etymological dictionary of the English language.

Liberman is an engaging, witty scholar who can entertain both popular audiences and academics. He is the author of Word Origins… and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone (Oxford University Press, 2005). He also writes a blog (a weekly word column) for Oxford University Press. He is the author of close to 500 publications, ranging from “Prephonological Views on Germanic Syllable Accents" to “A Cobweb of Dwarves and Dweebs."

Your articles and books run the gamut of medieval studies as a field. How do you explain your intellectual omnivorism?

LIBERMAN: In the 19th century, when serious Germanic philology came into being, no line separated language from literature as academic pursuits. The situation has changed dramatically since that time. Some people who specialize in linguistics and even in the history of the Germanic languages know very little about the literature written in those languages. They may believe that it is possible to teach the vowels and consonants of Middle High German without having read Parzival. Likewise, literary scholars may know all kinds of things about composition and character delineation and be experts in deconstruction but feel uneasy when it comes to discussing verbs that take the genitive or nouns with unusual endings. All of this is the result of later specialization.

Jacob Grimm, one of the two brothers of fairy tale fame, was the founder of our field. He and those who studied Latin and Greek held literature and language in equal esteem. My adviser continued that trend, and his influence on me was very strong. My lifelong love of reading also helped. Although my first steps were in linguistics, I soon turned to literary studies. Both areas are now inseparable to me, the more so as a student of etymology has to be omnivorous.

Do people ever remark on the irony of an etymological dictionary of English being written by a non-native speaker?

LIBERMAN: As far as the history of words is concerned, one doesn’t have to be a native speaker. If one reaches a stage at which one can write well, problems don’t arise. My weekly column is called “The Oxford Etymologist," and I don’t think it shocks my readers to see a typical Russian first name at its head more than it shocks them to see Vladimir Nabokov’s name on the title page of famous novels. After all, this is the United States of America, where a Russian Jew teaching in a department of German, Scandinavian, and Dutch can feel perfectly at home while he is working on an etymological dictionary of English.

Why is a new etymological dictionary of English needed?

LIBERMAN: English etymological dictionaries don’t say with sufficient clarity that the origin of most words is controversial. And yet the business of such dictionaries is exactly this—to state what is known and what is not known about the origin of words and to cite the literature on the subject. Excellent etymological dictionaries have been put together for all the major European languages but surprisingly, not for English; surprisingly, because thanks to the Oxford English Dictionary English lexicography occupies a place of honor. But a comprehensive dictionary of English etymology has never been written. The latest good work in this genre appeared in 1910. It offers a highly professional discussion of the origin of words but gives no references and does not concentrate as much as necessary on the debatable part of etymology. So I decided that the time had come to write such a dictionary. This was about 20 years ago. With the help of many paid assistants and volunteers, I worked like a slave chained to a galley. I had no illusions about the magnitude of my project. You have probably seen a common statement in prefaces: “If I had known how much time and effort it would take, I would not have started this enterprise."

I cannot say that about myself. In retrospect—100 years ago a variant of this phrase was “in great retrospect"—I am surprised that I have done so much rather than that I’m sorry I embarked on this project. “So much" means that a near exhaustive bibliography of English etymology, in more than 20 languages, for four centuries has been compiled. It features over 18,000 English words and their cognates. Also, many etymologies have been written. The publisher for the dictionary and the bibliography is the University of Minnesota Press.

What makes etymology an interesting subject?

LIBERMAN: Everything in our world leaves a trace in language. If you know the history of language and understand the main forces that make language change, you have one of the most important windows into the growth of the human mind, civilization, and even politics. Take any word, from guitar to democracy. While studying their development, we inevitably learn a good deal about music and the rise of social institutions. And only the history of language is able to reveal the history of thought, for, unfortunately, an examination of the gray matter in our heads is not sufficient for that purpose. Let me repeat: there is nothing in the man-made world that is not reflected in language.

How about your work in Scandinavian myths?

LIBERMAN: There are many points in common between mythology and historical
linguistics, for both entail reconstruction. The researcher faces disjointed traces and tries to visualize the picture as it once existed. This is detective work, not unlike what is described in a thriller: a novel by Agatha Christie or a tale by Arthur Conan Doyle.

The stories that have come down to us as ancient myths are sometimes well preserved and clear, but frequently they are obscure. Only one version of a myth may be extant; other times many versions are known, and we have to decide which of them to trust and which is the oldest. Investigating the origin of a myth and the origin of a word are similar processes, and this is what united my study of folklore, myths, and etymology. Regardless of whether I deal with linguistics, literature, or oral tradition, I try to get to the beginning of things.

What is the future of philology and historical linguistics?

LIBERMAN: The great age for philology and historical linguistics was the 19th century and the time before the First World War. Then the age of structuralism, which emphasized the present day state of all systems rather than their historical development, set in. Philology has withstood the onslaught of structuralism and to a certain extent enriched it; structuralist studies in the area of historical linguistics are numerous. Students are interested in old languages (respectable enrollments are the best proof of my statement; I think I had 12 or even more people for Old Saxon several years ago), and something along these lines is taught on most campuses, Old English, for example. But a lot depends on the goodwill of administrators and colleagues. Let me give you the most recent example. Several months ago, I had a call from one of the best public universities in the United States saying: “Do you teach Old Norse? Are you teaching it next year? If so, we would like our students to enroll in your course." It turned out that their philologist had retired three years before and, sadly enough, from my perspective, had not been replaced. So we will have a joint session on television. I will teach it, and several people from a distant campus are expected to take part. The course is being delivered through CIC CourseShare (a program of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation). My other example goes back to the early 1980s. In Denmark, the chairman of the Scandinavian Department asked me: “How many people do you have for Old Norse?" At that time I had a lot—between 15 and 20 every year. He said: “I’ve been here for 25 years and haven’t had half of your students." In Denmark, a Scandinavian country!

I’ve been most fortunate at Minnesota. Here I’ve taught all the Germanic languages and all the medieval Germanic literatures. We have a busy philological track in the department, with four of us teaching medieval languages and literature at all levels. The department is supportive of it, and I hope that this trend will continue in the future and that all of us will live happily ever after.

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This page contains a single entry by cla published on June 27, 2008 4:44 PM.

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