Archives for May 2015

Words Writers Love.

Writers, by and large, love words, so it makes sense to ask them which words they’re particularly fond of, and the Guardian did so; it’s an even more interesting list than you might expect, and it leads off with the wonderful Hilary Mantel, who says, inter alia, “Only recently I learned nesh, which you would be after traipsing: fragile, a bit ill, feeling the cold, generally sorry for yourself.” I was glad to learn it, and it has an interesting history, as revealed by the OED:

Etymology: Cognate with early modern Dutch, Dutch regional (West Flemish) nesch, nisch soft (of eggs), damp, sodden, foolish (16th cent.), Gothic hnasqus soft, tender. A connection with Old High German nascōn and its cognates in sense ‘to eat dainty food or delicacies’ (see nosh v.) has been suggested, but seems unlikely.
The further etymology of the word is unclear: it has been suggested that it is related to Sanskrit kiknasa particles of ground grain (of rice), flesh of rice (represented in only one corrupt late Vedic text, with variants caknasa, cikkasa, in context implying an unattested compound piṣṭa-cikkasa particle of flour, from which some have posited a Sanskrit root cikk– to hurt) and further with Latvian regional knost, knosīt to peck at plumage with the beak, pluck, beat (compare Latvian knosīties to scratch oneself), but the connection between the two is difficult to make, and their joint connection with the Germanic word is not generally accepted.

Now regional.
A. adj.
1. a. Soft in texture or consistency; yielding easily to pressure or force. In later use chiefly: tender, succulent, juicy.
OE (Northumbrian) Lindisf. Gospels: Matt. xi. 8 Mollibus uestiuntur: mið hnescum [OE Rushw. næscum] gerelum gescirped biðon uel sind.
lOE King Ælfred tr. Boethius De Consol. Philos. (Bodl.) xxxiii. 80 Þæt hnesce & flowende wæter.
?c1200 Ormulum (Burchfield transcript) l. 995 Bulltedd bræd..wass..smeredd wel wiþþ ele sæw & makedd fatt & nesshe.
a1475 J. Russell Bk. Nurture 986 in F. J. Furnivall Early Eng. Meals & Manners (1931) 67 Lett hym go to bed but looke it be soote & nesche.
1678 J. Ray tr. F. Willughby Ornithol. ii. x. 160 Their [sc. turkeys’] young Chickens are very nesh and tender, and not to be reared without great care and attendance.
1802 T. D. Fosbroke Econ. Monastic Life i. vii, Their feathery leaves where nesh Acacias spread.
1915 R. C. Thompson Pilgr. Scrip 71 The road from the bridge is like an English lane with blackberry hedgerows..and a nesh track for a morning gallop.

2. Lacking courage, spirit, or energy; timid, faint-hearted; lazy, negligent. Now Eng. regional, chiefly north. rare.
eOE King Ælfred tr. Gregory Pastoral Care (Hatton) (1871) lx. 453 Swa he ðone hnescan ðafettere on recceleste ne gebrenge.
c1300 St. Thomas Becket (Laud) 1589 in C. Horstmann Early S.-Eng. Legendary (1887) 152 For þat þe bischopus bifore me weren to nesche..Þe stude fastore i mot beo.
▸a1393 Gower Confessio Amantis (Fairf.) iv. 3681 (MED), He was to neysshe and sche to hard.
1841 R. W. Hamilton Nugæ Lit. 354 Nesh is applied to a cowardly, undecided person.
1995 Guardian 9 Oct. 12 The worst crime was the charge of being ‘nesh’… It was..nesh to..wait for the bus to stop before jumping into the road [etc.].

3. a. Mild, gentle, kind; inclined to pity, mercy, etc. Obs.
eOE King Ælfred tr. Gregory Pastoral Care (Hatton) (1871) xvii. 126 Sie ðær eac lufu, næs ðeah to hnesce.
a1382 Bible (Wycliffite, E.V.) : Prov. (Bodl. 959) xv. 1 A Nesshe [a1425 L.V. soft; L. mollis] answere brekeþ wrathe.
c1530 Court of Love 1092 It semeth for love his harte is tender nessh.

b. Easily yielding to temptation; inclined to lust or wantonness. Obs.
OE Ælfric Catholic Homilies: 2nd Ser. (Cambr. Gg.3.28) xii. 124 Hnesce on mode to flæsclicum lustum.
c1275 (▸?a1216) Owl & Nightingale (Calig.) 1387 Wymmon is of neysse [v.r. nesche] fleysse, & fleysses lustes is strong to queysse.
?a1475 Ludus Coventriae 28 (MED), Oure hap was hard, oure wytt was nesch to paradys whan we were brought.

4. a. Delicate, weak, sickly, feeble; unable to endure fatigue, etc.; susceptible (to cold, etc.).
Now the prevalent sense.

OE Old Eng. Hexateuch: Gen. (Claud.) xxxiii. 13 Ic hæbbe hnesce lytlingas & geeane eawa & gecealfe cy mid me; gyf ic hi to swyðe drife, ealle hi forwurþað.
a1500 (▸a1375) Octavian (Calig.) 1210 (MED), Wymmen beþ of swych maner, All tendre and nessche.
1607 E. Topsell Hist. Fovre-footed Beastes 377 If the horse be nesh and tender, & so wax lean without any apparant griefe.
1789 W. Marshall Rural Econ. Glocestershire I. 330 Nesh; the common term, for tender or washy, as spoken of a cow or horse.
1887 H. Caine Deemster I. vi. 115 Their own little room.., where no fire burned lest they should grow ‘nesh’.
1984 S. T. Warner One Thing leading to Another (1985) 76 ‘They take looking after. They’re nesh.’ Nesh. Her father’s word, meaning ‘delicate’. The girl looks nesh.

The progression ‘soft’ > ‘timid’ > ‘mild’ > ‘weak’ is a nice illustration of semantic shift, and who can resist Gothic hnasqus?

But all of them are good. It’s interesting that both Andrew O’Hagan and Aminatta Forna mention clart; Forna says:

My great grandmother was an Orcadian and I am told she spoke to me only Orkney when I was a child. According to my mother, I appeared to understand every word she said and spoke to her in Orkney, too. This strikes me as highly likely, in the way that children appear to be born multilingual, to have by an early age acquired a facility in all the languages of the world and in which they are able to make their needs known. Our family on my grandfather’s side came mainly from Aberdeen and spoke Doric. My grandmother, I’m guessing, spoke both Doric and Orkney. I love the Orkney word clart which I expect I heard a good bit. It means covered in or layered, thick with. You might equally say “that child is clart in mud”, as describe a scone as “clart with jam”.

For clart, the OED says (in an 1889 entry) “the origin is unknown.” (We dealt with Doric here.)

The Scythe, the Swath, and the Hired Men.

Alexander Anichkin (aka Sashura) at Tetradki has a wonderful post comparing three versions of a passage from Anna Karenina, giving the Russian followed by translations by Constance Garnett, Pevear/Volokhonsky, and Nathan Haskell Dole. I agree with Sashura that the Garnett is the best, which pleases me; I’m always defending Connie against the rote attacks leveled by people who believe the hype surrounding newer translations (which always start out attacking her, since she got there first and is still very popular). If you can deal with her slightly antiquated prose style, she’s a fine translator, accurate and conscientious (she checked with her authors to verify fine points when she could). But the fun is in the detailed choices the translators made, occasionally misguided — I particularly like Dole’s “my brother” for нашего брата (наш брат, literally ‘our brother,’ is used to mean ‘people like us, our sort,’ and it’s so common an expression that if you’re not familiar with it you really shouldn’t be translating Tolstoy), but the most hilarious error is definitely P/V’s “look at the hired men!” for “А вишь, подрядье-то!” (Garnett, as usual, gets it right with “But see the grass missed out!”; Sashura has a good, detailed explanation of the Russian word подрядье).

Ethnogenesis and Language.

Another great passage from Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome (see this post and this post):

It is this process that has been called ‘ethnogenesis’ by Herwig Wolfram and his school: the recognition that ethnic identities were flexible, malleable, ‘situational constructs’; the same ‘barbarian’ in sixth-century Italy could be Rugian, and Ostrogothic, and (though only after the east Roman reconquest) even Roman. Such people would have picked up different identities successively (or contemporaneously), and these would have brought with them different modes of behaviour and loyalties, and even, eventually, different memories. As Walter Pohl has recently put it, the ‘kernel of traditions’ that made someone Ostrogoth or Visigoth was probably a network of contradictory and changeable beliefs; there does not have to have been a stable set of traditions in each group as it moved from beyond the frontier, to discontinuous service in the Roman army, then to settlement in a Roman province. By 650 every ‘barbarian’ kingdom had its own traditions, some of them claiming to go back centuries, and those doubtless were by then core elements in the founding myths of many of their inhabitants; all the same, founding myths not only do not have to be true, but also do not have to be old. Each of the ‘Romano-Germanic’ kingdoms had a bricolage of beliefs and identities with very varying roots, and these, to repeat, could change, and be reconfigured, in each generation to fit new needs. Historians tend to give more attention to the account that Clovis’s grandfather was the son of a sea-monster, a quinotaur, than to the account that the Franks were descended from the Trojans, which seems more ‘literary’, less ‘authentic’; but the first record of each of these traditions appears in the same seventh-century source, and it would be hard to say that one was more widely believed — or older — than the other.

From all of this, one has to conclude that post-Roman identities were a complex mixture, and they had a variety of origins: Roman, ‘barbarian’, biblical; and also both oral and literary. What they had to do was less to locate an ethnic group in the past, than to distinguish it from its contemporary neighbours. This means that to ask what was non-Roman or ‘barbarian’ about the new ethnic groups is in part the wrong question; Arianism, for example, was a very Roman heresy, but by 500, for most people, it had become an ethnic marker, of Goths or Vandals. The Gothic language itself was by 500 in large part a liturgical tradition, associated precisely with that ex-Roman Arianism, rather than with ‘Gothic-ness’ in an ethnic sense; many Goths just spoke Latin, without their Gothic-ness being affected either positively or negatively. Indeed, unlike in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, language was not, as far as we can see, a strong ethnic marker anywhere in our period. Plenty of Franks in 600, say, still spoke Frankish (a version of what we now call Old High German), but very probably not all did, and many were certainly fully bilingual. Gregory of Tours, the most prolific writer of the sixth century in Gaul, who was a monoglot Latin-speaker, never gives the slightest indication that he had trouble communicating with anyone else in the Frankish kingdoms. Neither he nor anyone else in the Frankish world, until the ninth century in fact, makes anything of communication difficulties between primary speakers of Latin and Frankish; it must have happened, but it was not a problem for Frankishness.

The “kernel of traditions” idea is nicely illustrated in a contemporary context by Mikhail Iampolski in a recent article (Russian, English — I’ll note that the latter contains a confusing typo, “a war reenacted” for “a war reenactor”); Iampolski has a good quote from Jean-Luc Nancy, who in The Inoperative Community (pp. 43-44) “proposed an imaginary scenario behind the formation of collective identity[…] people sitting around a campfire and listening to the myth of their shared origin”:

They were not assembled like this before the story; the recitation has gathered them together. Before, they were dispersed (at least this is what the story tells us at times), shoulder to shoulder, working with and confronting one another without recognizing one another. <…>He [the founder of the community] recounts to them their history, or his own, a story that they all know, but that he alone has the gift, the right, or the duty to tell. It is the story of their origin, of where they come from, and of how they come from the Origin itself—them, or their mates, or their names, or the authority figure among them. And so at the same time it is also the story of the beginning of the world, of the beginning of the assembling together, or of the beginning of the narrative itself….

Iampolski adds, “When he describes this mythical scene containing echoes of Schlegel, Shelling, Görres, Bachofen, Wagner, Freud, Kerényi, Cassirer, and Goethe, Nancy shows it to be pure myth, part of collective memory.”

Losing One’s Antipathies.

I’m getting towards the end of the English translation of Annenkov’s «Замечательное десятилетие. 1838–1848», and I was struck by this passage from Chapter XXXV:

It is understandable, however, that, with his new attitude of mind, the perturbations and squabbles of the Russian literary circles, in which Belinsky had quite recently taken so lively a part, retreated to the background.[…] Belinsky became a solitary figure within his own party, despite the journal founded on his behalf, and the first symptom of the departure from its ranks was his losing all his old antipathies, antipathies to which his followers still firmly adhered as a way of imparting the appearance of staunchness and energy to their convictions. He had so far departed from the frame of mind of the circle that he found it possible to be fair, and he finally rid himself of all his deep-rooted, virtually obligatory aversions which formerly were accounted literary and political duties.

Понятно, однако же, что с новым настроением Белинского волнения и схватки русских литературных кругов, в которых он еще недавно принимал такое живое участие, отошли на задний план.[…] Белинский становился одиноким посреди собственной партии, несмотря на журнал, основанный во имя его, и первым симптомом выхода из ее рядов явилась у него утрата всех старых антипатий, за которые еще крепко держались его последователи как за средство сообщать вид стойкости и энергии своим убеждениям. Он до того удалился от кружкового настроения, что получил возможность быть справедливым и наконец упразднил в себе все закоренелые, почти обязательные ненависти, которые считались прежде и литературным и политическим долгом.

This took place during the final year of Belinsky’s life, while he was at Salzbrunn (a spa town then in Prussian Silesia, now Polish Szczawno-Zdrój) trying to recover from the tuberculosis that would soon kill him. I was irresistibly reminded of an unforgettable scene from Time Regained (Le Temps Retrouvé), the final volume of Proust’s great novel, in which another sick and dying man has a similar loss, though presented in tragicomic rather than matter-of-fact terms (translation by Andreas Mayor):

A man with staring eyes and hunched figure was placed rather than seated in the back [of the cab], and was making, to keep himself upright, the efforts that might have been made by a child who has been told to be good. But his straw hat failed to conceal an unruly forest of hair which was entirely white, and a white beard, like those which snow forms on the statues of river-gods in public gardens, flowed from his chin. It was — side by side with Jupien, who was unremitting in his attentions to him — M. de Charlus, now convalescent after an attack of apoplexy […] But what was most moving was that one felt that this lost brightness [of his eyes] was identical with his moral pride, and that somehow the physical and even the intellectual life of M. de Charlus had survived the eclipse of that aristocratic haughtiness which in the past had seemed indissolubly linked to them. To confirm this, at the moment which I am describing, there passed in a victoria, no doubt also on her way to the reception of the Prince de Guermantes, Mme de Sainte-Euverte, whom formerly the Baron had not considered elegant enough for him. Jupien, who tended him like a child, whispered in his ear that it was someone with whom he was acquainted, Mme de Sainte-Euverte. And immediately, with infinite laboriousness but with all the concentration of a sick man determined to show that he is capable of all the movements which are still difficult for him, M. de Charlus lifted his hat, bowed, and greeted Mme de Sainte-Euverte as respectfully as if she had been the Queen of France or as if he had been a small child coming timidly in obedience to his mother’s command to say “How do you do?” to a grown-up person. […] And the exposure of the veins of silver in his hair was less indicative of profound convulsions than this unconscious humility which turned all social relationships upside down and abased before Mme. de Sainte-Euverte […] what had seemed to be the proudest snobbishness of all. […] M. de Charlus, who until this moment would never have consented to dine with Mme. de Sainte-Euverte, now bowed down to the ground in her honour.

Shortly afterwards comes this touching passage, of linguistic interest:

But when after a while I had grown accustomed to this pianissimo of whispered words, I perceived that the sick man retained the use of his intelligence completely intact. There were, however, two M. de Charluses, not to mention any others. Of the two, one, the intellectual one, passed his time in complaining that he suffered from progressive aphasia, that he constantly pronounced one word, one letter by mistake for another. But as soon as he actually made such a mistake, the other M. de Charlus, the subconscious one, who was as desirous of admiration as the first was of pity and out of vanity did things that the first would have despised, immediately, like a conductor whose orchestra has blundered, checked the phrase which he had started and with infinite ingenuity made the end of his sentence follow coherently from the word which he had uttered by mistake for another but which he thus appeared to have chosen.

Ten Fascinating Interpreters.

A nice roundup by David Tormsen; from Thomas Pereira and Jean-Francois Gerbillon, who helped bring about the Treaty of Nerchinsk (and thus are doubtless well known to Greg Afinogenov, aka slawkenbergius), to Constantine Phaulkon, a Greek who “became essentially the second-most powerful man in Siam,” it’s well worth your while. And if anyone is, like me, curious about the “poor unfortunate misled girl” to whom Alexander Burnes left 200 pounds, apparently we’ll never know if she got the money, but you can read what’s known here. Thanks, Trevor!

“Arirang” and Korean Etymology.

Victor Mair has a Log post about an interesting situation:

Arirang” (Hangul: 아리랑) is arguably the most famous Korean folk song. Indeed, “Arirang” is so well-known that it is often considered to be Korea’s unofficial national anthem. Yet no one is sure when the song arose nor what the title means. […]

There are hundreds of theories of the origin and meaning of “arirang”. In “What Does Arirang Mean? The Theories on the Etymology of Arirang” (5/24/15), the author examines nine of the theories, which ascribe the song’s origin to dates ranging from the first c. BC to the late nineteenth century AD and which contend that the title is based on the personal name of two different heroines, that it means “I Part from My Dear”, that it means “Our Escape Is Difficult”, that it means “My Ears Become Deaf”, that it means “Mute and Deaf”, that it is a Classical Chinese onomatopoeic expression signifying the grunts of laborers, that it signifies “Russia, America, Japan, and England” (!), or that it is the name of a hill. The phonological transformations that are required to get from many of these terms and expressions to “arirang”, quite frankly, require considerable imagination.

The linked post by “Kuiwon” sounds somewhat tendentious, and frankly I’m happy to leave the song’s origin a mystery, but the discussion is worth reading, and I was particularly struck by this comment from Bob Ramsey:

[…] After all, Korean etymological “science” itself is pretty free-wheeling—just as the corresponding studies in Japan are. Virtually all of the so-called etymological dictionaries you see in Korea are ridiculously fanciful and often outrageously anachronistic. And that is certainly true of everything you see said about the word arirang. I doubt it’s a mystery that will ever be solved.

I might point out, though, that my old mentor Lee Ki-Moon has for decades now been engaged in a truly serious project of putting together a genuine etymological dictionary of Korean But his work has been excruciatingly slow and difficult. The etymologies that he’s written up and sent me are always carefully documented, but for the most part they are studies about obscure and sometimes obsolescent words. I’m thinking that his project will outlast him and never be completed.

What a sad situation! I realize I’m spoiled being a speaker of a language with over a century of scientific etymological work and a student of other such languages, but it always shocks me to learn about major languages (Arabic being, I suppose, the most prominent) with no good etymological resources. Korean has (according to Wikipedia) about 80 million speakers, for heaven’s sake; it should have at least one decent etymological dictionary, even if it only covered basic vocabulary.

What Australian Slang Has Given the World.

A BBC piece by Mark Gwynn begins:

In 2013, ‘selfie’ became Oxford Dictionaries’ word of the year.

It’s become such a ubiquitous word, but few stop to think about where it came from. It may come as a surprise to learn that is has its origins in Australia: the first evidence of the word in use comes from an online forum entry by the Australian Nathan Hope, who posted a photo of his lip, which he says he cut while drinking at a mate’s 21st birthday party.

It certainly came as a surprise to me! Of course, it makes sense, as Gwynn says:

For most Australian English speakers, the ‘-ie’ suffix is a natural part of the language. Unlike similar diminutives in international English, for example ‘birdie’ or ‘doggie’, the ‘-ie’ suffix in Australian English serves as a marker of informality – providing speakers with a shared code of familiarity and solidarity. Australian English is replete with such words: ‘barbie’ (a barbecue), ‘mushie’ (a mushroom), ‘prezzie’ (a present), and ‘sunnies’ (sunglasses) to name just a few. […]

The Australian penchant for abbreviating words is also demonstrated by the use of the ‘-o’ suffix. In Australian English an ‘ambo’ is an ambulance officer, a ‘reffo’ is a refugee, and a ‘rello’ is a relative. A number of these types of abbreviations have made their way into global English including ‘demo’ (a demonstration), ‘muso’ (a musician), and ‘preggo’ (pregnant). Other abbreviations, including ‘perv’ (a sexual pervert) and ‘uni’ (university), have also migrated to global English. […]

As with other varieties of English around the world, Australian English has its fair share of idioms and phrases that are often unfathomable to the non-native speaker. This is certainly true of idioms including ‘to carry on like a pork chop’ (to behave foolishly; to make a fuss), ‘to chuck a sickie’ (to take a day’s sick leave from work – with the implication that the person is not really ill), and ‘to spit the dummy’ (to lose one’s temper).

Lots more interesting stuff in there; thanks, Bathrobe!

It Made Most Sense in Greek.

I have to pass along another quote from Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome (see this post); he’s been describing the series of church councils that were intended to reconcile differing positions but usually wound up creating better-organized heresies (the ecumenical council at Constantinople in 381 “paradoxically … caused ‘Arianism’ itself to crystallize as a worked-out religious system, in effect”), and the impossibility of eradicating Monophysitism because it had grass-roots support, and then comes this sensible and delightfully written paragraph:

It is impossible to characterize these conflicts accurately in a few words, for the theology at issue is amazingly intricate, depending on tight definitions and Platonist philosophical developments of concepts which would take many pages to set out in English (it was, furthermore, a debate which made most sense in Greek even then; Leo I was the last Latin-speaker really to grasp and contribute to it). Such detailed characterizations do not belong here. But it is important to stress that they did matter. Pagan observers found these debates ridiculous, even insane, as well as amazingly badly behaved, but having an accurate and universally agreed definition of God became increasingly important for Christians between 300 and 550, not least because the political power of bishops steadily increased. It is relevant that they mattered more in the East, where technical philosophical debate was longer-rooted in intellectual life, but with the ‘barbarian’ conquests Christological issues came to the West as well, and Arian- Catholic debates were bitter there, too; anyway, the Augustinian problematic which dominated theology in the West, centred on predestination and divine grace, was no less complex, even though it sidestepped Christological debate. It is of course impossible to say how many people properly understood the issues at stake at, say, Chalcedon; perhaps only a few hundred, although one should not underestimate the theological sophistication of the citizens of the great cities, exposed as they were to the sermons of some high-powered thinkers. But the problem of the real divinity of a human god, who had even died, at the Crucifixion, was at least an issue that would have made sense in the late Roman world, where the cult of the emperors as gods was still remembered (indeed, it was still practised by some) and the divine being was not, in the fifth century at least, as distant from humanity as he (or they) would be in some versions of Christianity.

It is all too easy to make fun of the subtle distinctions insisted on by the various factions (I’ve certainly done so); he does a good job of explaining why they were seen as important. And in the next paragraph he mentions the Circumcellions (“ascetic peasants or seasonal labourers”)! He calls them the armed wing of the Donatists, and goes on to say “Monks from the countryside were also used as shock troops, usually on the Monophysite side; Jerusalem was a dangerous place because of the number of monasteries around it, which could quickly be mobilized…” Not the way we usually think of monks!


It occurred to me to wonder why the word nephew, which comes from French neveu, is written with –ph-, so I looked it up in the OED, which (though the entry was updated in September 2003) is uncharacteristically unhelpful — after listing over a hundred variant spellings (including neveaw, newowe, neuo, nephwoy, and nevvey) gives the following etymology:

< Anglo-Norman nevou, neveu, nevew, nevu, newu and Old French, Middle French neveu (also in Old French as nevou, nevo, nevu, nepveu, etc.; French neveu), originally the oblique case of Old French nies, niers (c1100; 2nd half of the 12th cent. in sense ‘grandson’, c1500 as nepveux (plural) in sense ‘descendants’) < classical Latin nepōt-, nepōs, grandson, descendant, a prodigal (see sense 2c), a secondary shoot (see sense 5), in post-classical Latin also nephew (4th cent.), niece (13th cent.), cognate with neve n.1. Compare also nepote n.

Which has some interesting information (I didn’t know about the OF nominative nies, niers, or the native Germanic form neve, parallel to German Neffe), but doesn’t address the spelling issue. Spellings with –p– go back way earlier than I would have guessed (?1456 Duke of York in Paston Lett. & Papers (2004) II. 100 “To take possession and saisine, in the name and to þe vse of our ful worshipful nepueu th’Erl of Warrewic”); I realize it must be Latinizing, after nepōs, but it seems very odd — we write river, not riper or ripher, even though again French –v– is from Latin –p-. Does anybody know anything more about the history of this spelling change, and the concomitant spelling pronunciation with /f/ which is universal in the US and exists in the UK as well? Come to think of it, that’s another thing I’m curious about — I’ve long been aware of the UK pronunciation /ˈnɛvjuː/, but for some reason I had the impression it was antiquated; the OED, however, implies it’s the more common one:
Pronunciation: Brit. /ˈnɛvjuː/, /ˈnɛfjuː/, U.S. /ˈnɛfju/

So I’ll ask you Brits: do you say it with /v/ or /f/, and do you think of the former as standard or old-fashioned?


I had one yanked today, so I thought I’d post about the Indo-European forms, which mostly all come from the same root and which beautifully illustrate all sorts of sound changes; this is the sort of thing that got me interested in historical linguistics. The Germanic forms — Old English tóþ, Old Saxon tand, Low German tan, Dutch tand, Old High German zan(a) (German Zahn), and Old Norse tǫnn (Swedish, Danish tand, Norwegian tonn) — all come from a reconstructed *tanþuz (Gothic Gothic tunþus has a different vowel that must come from the zero grade); French dent, Italian dente, Spanish diente, and Romanian dinte all come from Latin dent– (nominative dens); Greek odont– (nominative odous) shows the o-grade and an initial laryngeal; and all these, plus Sanskrit dant-, Welsh dant, Old Irish dét (i.e., /de:d/), Lithuanian dantìs, and Armenian atamn, come from a Proto-Indo-European root reconstructed as *dent-. The AHD IE Appendix lays it out by root grade, beginning with the suggestion that it was originally a participle:

Tooth. Originally *h1d-ent‑, “biting,” present participle of ed– in the earlier meaning “to bite.”

1. O-grade form *dont‑. tooth, from Old English tōth, tooth, from Germanic *tanthuz.
2. Zero-grade form *dn̥t‑. tusk, from Old English tūsc, tūx, canine tooth, from Germanic *tunth-sk‑.
3. Full-grade form *dent‑. dental, […] from Latin dēns (stem dent‑), tooth.
4. O-grade variant form *ədont‑, ultimately becoming odont‑ in Greek –odon, […] from Greek odōn, odous, tooth.

[In Pokorny ed‑ 287.]

The Slavic words (Russian зуб [Vasmer], Polish ząb, etc., all from related to OCS зѫбъ), like Latvian zùobs and Albanian dhëmb, come from a different root, *gembh- ‘tooth, nail,’ which gives English comb among others, and Irish has fiacail, which is just weird.