Page images
PDF
EPUB

LECTURE VL

ON THE PRINCIPLES OF ETYMOLOGY.

VOLTAIRE defined etymology as a science in which vowels signify nothing at all, and consonants very little. L'étymologie," he said, “est une science les voyelles ne font rien, et les consonnes fort peu de chose." Nor was this sarcasm quite undeserved by those who wrote on etymology in Voltaire's time, and we need not wonder that a man so reluctant to believe in any miracles should have declined to believe in the miracles of etymology. Of course, not even Voltaire was so great a sceptic as to maintain that the words of our modern languages have no etymology, i. e. no origin, at all. Words do not spring into life by an act of spontaneous generation, and the words of modern languages in particular are in many cases so much like the words of ancient languages, that no doubt is possible as to their real origin and derivation. Wherever there was a certain similarity in sound and meaning between French words and words belonging to Latin, German, Hebrew, or any other tongue, even Voltaire would have acquiesced. No one, for instance, could ever have doubted that the French word for God, Dieu, was the same as the Latin Deus ; that the French homme, and even on, was the Latin homo; the French femme,

the Latin femina. In these instances there had been no change of mcaning, and the change of form, though the process by which it took place remained unexplained, was not such as to startle even the most sensitive conscience. There was indeed one department of etymology which had been cultivated with great success in Voltaire's time, and even long before him, namely, the history of the Neo-Latin or Romance dialects. We find in the dictionary of Du Cange a most valuable collection of extracts from mediæval Latin writers, which enables us to trace, step by step, the gradual changes of form and meaning from ancient to modern Latin ; and we have in the much-ridiculed dictionary of Menage many an ingenious contribution towards tracing those medieval Latin words in the earliest documents of French literature, from the times of the Crusades to the Siècle of Louis XIV.

Thus a mere reference to Montaigne, who wrote in the sixteenth century, is sufficient to prove that the modern French gêner was originally gehenner. Montaigne writes: “ Je me suis contraint et gehenné," meaning, “I have forced and tortured myself.” This verb gehenner is easily traced back to the Latin gehenna, used in the Greek of the New Testament and in the ecclesiastical writings of the Middle Ages not only in the sense of hell, but in the more general sense of suffering and pain. It is well known that Gehenna was originally the name of the valley of Himnom, near Jerusalem (3572), the Tophet, where the Jews burnt their sons and their daughters in the fire, and of which Jeremiah prophesied that it should

“ Je sens de son courroux des gênes trop cruelles."

i Molière

say's,

be called the valley of slaughter: for “ They shall bury in Tophet till there be no place.” ! How few persons think now of the sacrifices offered to Moloch in the valley of Hinnom when they ask their friends to make themselves comfortable, and say, “ Ne vous gênez pas."

It was well known, not only to Voltaire, but even to Henri Estienne, who wrote in the sixteenth century, that it is in Latin we may expect to find the original form and meaning of most of the words · which fill the dictionaries of the French, Italian, and Spanish languages. But these early etymologists never knew of any test by which a true derivation might be distinguished from a false one, except similarity of sound and meaning; and how

1 Jeremiah vii. 31, 32.

3 Henri Estienne, Traicte de la Conformité du Langage Français avec lo Grec, 1566. What Estienne meals by the conformité of French and Greek refers chiefly to syntactical peculiarities, coinmun to both languages. “ En une epistre Latine que je mi l'an passé audevant de quelques miens dialogues Grecs, ce propos m'eschappa, Quia multo majorem Gallica lingua cum Græcâ habet affinitatem quam Latina; et quidain tantum (absit invidia dicto) ut Gallos eo ipso quod nati sint Galli, maximum ad linguæ Græcæ cognitionem potépnua seu TREOVÉKTnua afferre putem." Estienne's etymologies are mostly sensible and sober; those which are of a more doubtful character are marked as such by himself. It is not right to class so great a scholar as H. Estienne together with Perion, and to charge him with having ignored the Latin origin of French. (See August Fuchs, Die Romanischen Sprachen, 1819, p. 9.) What Estienne thought of Perion may be seen from the following extract ( Traicte de la Conformité, p. 139): “Il trouvera assez bõ nombre de telles en un livre de nostre maistre Perion: je ne di pas seulemēt de phantastiques, mais de sottes et ineptes, et si lourdes et asnieres que n'estoyent les autres temoignages que ce poure moine nous a laissez de sa lourderie et asnerie, on pourroit penser son œuvre estre supposé." Estier.ne is wrongly charged with having derived admiral, French amirul, from chuvpós. lle says it is Arabic, and so it is. It is the Arab Emir, prince, leader, possibly with the Arabic article, French amirrl; Span. almirante; It. almiroyliv, as if from admirabilis. Hammer's derivation froin amir al bahr, cominander of the sea, is untenable.

far this similarity might be extended may be seen in such works as Perion's “ Dialogi de Lingua Gallicæ Origine(1557), or Guichard's “Harmonie Étymologique des Langues Hebraique, Chaldaique, Syriaque, Greque, Latine, Italienne, Espagnole, Alle. mande, Flamende, Angloise(Paris, 1606). Perion derives brebis, sheep (the Italian berbice), from próbaton, not from the Latin vervex, like berger from berbicarius. Envoyer he derives from the Greek pémpein, not from the Latin inviare. Heureux he derives from the Greek oürios.

Now, if we take the last instance, it is impossible to deny that there is a certain similarity of form and meaning between the Greek and French ; and as there can be no doubt that certain French words, such as parler, prêtre, aumône, were derived from Greek, it would have been very difficult to convince M. Perion that his derivation of heureux was not quite as good as any other. There is another ety. mology of the same word, according to which it is derived from the Latin hora. Bonheur is supposed to be bona hora; malheur, mala hora; and therefore heureux is referred to a supposed Latin form, horosus, in the sense of fortunatus. This etymology, however, is no better than that of Perion. It is a guess, and no more, and it falls to the ground as soon as any of the more rigid tests of etymological science are applied to it. In this instance the test is very simple. There is, first of all, the gender of malheur and bonheur, masculine instead of feminine. Secondly, we find that malheur was spelt in Old French mal aür, which is malum augurium. (See Diez, “ Etymologisches Wörterbuch der Romani

We

:

schen Sprachen,” 1858, s. v.) Thirdly, we find in Provençal agur, augur, and from it the Spanish aguëro, an omen. Augurium itself comes from avis, bird, and gur, telling, gur being connected with garrire, garrulus, and the Sanskrit gar or grî, to shout.

may form an idea of what etymological tests were in forner times when we read in Guichard's “ Harmonie Étyinologique :"1 “With regard to the derivations of words by means of the addition, subtraction, transposition, and inversion of letters, it is certain that this can and must be done, if we wish to find true etymologies. Nor is it difficult to believe this, if we consider that the Jews wrote from right to left, whereas the Greeks and the other nations, who derive their languages from Hebrew, write from left to right.” Hence, he argues, there can be no harm in inverting letters or changing them to any amount. As long as etymology was carried on on such principles, it could not claim the name of a science. It was an amusement in which people might display more or less of learning or ingenuity, but it was unworthy of its noble title, “ The Science of Truth.”

It is only in the present century that etymology has taken its rank as a science, and it is curious to observe that what Voltaire intended as a sarcasm has now become one of its acknowledged principles. Etymology is indeed a science in which identity, or even similarity, whether of sound or meaning, is

1 “Quant à la derivaison des mots par addition, substraction, transposition, et inversion des lettres, il est certain que cela se peut et doit ainsi faire, si on veut trouver les étymologies. Ce qui n'est point difficile à croire, si nous considerons que les Hebreux escrivent de la droite à la senestre, et les Grecs et autres de la senestre à la droite."

« PreviousContinue »