A Botany of Words.

Michael Marder has a very silly piece at The Philosopher’s Plant that positively wallows in the etymological fallacy; Marder doesn’t like the word “plant” because:

When we say “plant,” we immediately affiliate our speech and understanding with the Latin tradition. The word recalls, through the noun planta (still preserved in the same form in Spanish and Portuguese), the verb plantāre that means “to drive in with one’s feet, to push into the ground with one’s feet,” hinting at that other sense of planta, intimately tied to our bodies—“the sole of a foot” (cf. Barnhart’s Dictionary of Etymology). A mindboggling number of assumptions about plants and our comportment toward them are built into this etymology. Some of the tacit suppositions it underwrites are the following: 1) the soil needs to be leveled and made flat before planting can begin; 2) the root is equivalent to feet, by which plants are driven into the ground; [etc. etc. etc.]

But I’m quoting it mainly for the passage on Basque, which I dedicate to the late Larry Trask, that connoisseur of Bascomania:

And what if the word for “plant” is absent? That, as a matter of fact, was the case in Euskera (Basque language, which does not belong to the group of Indo-European languages) before its speakers adopted the designation landare from the Latin-based plantāre. According to the explanation I received from my Basque colleagues, Euskera put at the disposal of its speakers names for particular plants (a birch, an oak, peas, wheat…) without generalizing them under an abstract heading, a higher class. Perhaps, the distance from the vegetal world was insufficient to transform it into an object—above all, in and through language—set over and against the human subject. Whatever the explanation, such a level of singularity is virtually inaccessible to our modern sensibilities; at the limit, we can only get an inkling of it with the help of ethical categories and precepts.

Ah, those primitive Basques, so close to the vegetable world they can’t see the forest for the trees! (Thanks go to Trevor for the link.)

Comments

  1. Bathrobe says:

    Is it possible that the word ‘plant’ was originally extended from domesticated crops to vegetation in general? The examples given (a birch, an oak, peas, wheat…) certainly don’t cohere together as a class for me, except in the botanical sense of ‘members of the vegetable kingdom’. In everyday perceptions, I doubt that oaks and wheat really belong together that much, except perhaps in cultures that have domesticated the oak as a crop.

    The example from Japanese of 植物 shokubutsu is pretty silly because this is, of course, the Japanese equivalent of ‘plant’ and is used as such, including its use in 植物学 shokubutsu-gaku ‘botany’. More useful would be the word 草木 kusa-ki, ‘grass and trees’, since this manages in an ‘enumerative’ sense to capture the concept of vegetation without resorting to the idea of ‘planting’.

  2. David Eddyshaw says:

    The Welsh word “plant” “children” is a borrowing of this same Latin word (and the Old Irish “clann” is borrowed from that in turn.)

    From this it follows that the Goidels and the Britons were so exceptionally primitive that they had no children before the Romans came. I expect they maintained the population by kidnapping continentals.

  3. David Eddyshaw says:

    Perhaps an extreme statement; I should rather have said that my forebears were so committed to family life that although they had the concepts “son” and “daughter” they never felt the need for the grey sexless abstraction “child,” until those soulless unCeltic Romans corrupted them.

  4. marie-lucie says:

    In the Alsea language (formerly spoken somewhere on the Oregon coast), the word for ‘children’ (in the plural) is identical with the word for ‘branches, tree limbs’. Think of ‘genealogical trees’.

  5. Wouldn’t the metaphor be the other way, i.e. branches as the children of the trunk / larger branches?

  6. A pity he didn’t look in the AHD or a similar source for plant‘s relatives: flat (adjective), flat (noun), flatter (verb), flan (which took a round trip through Romance), flounder, and pla(i)ce. The last two might have prompted quite a flight of fancy about the connections between plants and fish. And of course if the Basques had no generic noun for ‘plant’ until they borrowed one, by the same token neither did the English, or rather the proto-Germanics.

  7. Right. And a modern American cannot distinguish between his offspring and that of his domestic animal.

  8. Few of us modern Americans keep goats, however.

  9. marie-lucie says:

    Y: Wouldn’t the metaphor be the other way, i.e. branches as the children of the trunk / larger branches?

    That’s a possibility. Thus far I don’t know which interpretation is most likely, but the data on this language and others potentially related to it are fairly skimpy. I will keep your suggestion in mind!

  10. Stefan Holm says:

    And of course if the Basques had no generic noun for ‘plant’ until they borrowed one, by the same token neither did the English, or rather the proto-Germanics.

    I’m not so sure, John. Sw växt with cognates all over Scandinavia is generic for all members of the plant kingdom, as opposed to djur – animal (Linnaeus called them ‘flora’ and ‘fauna’). It’s known from Gothic (wahstus) and OHG (wahst). It’s of course cognate to Eng wax (the verb – not the stuff you might find in a beehive or your ear). Swedish Etymological Wordbook mentions the ‘m-derivatives’ wæstm in Anglo-Saxon and wastum in Old Saxon.

    It’s thought to be from a root *weg- or *aug- meaning grow or increase. Via Latin this is found in the (linguistic) terms auxiliary and augment – or Augustus (‘the exalted’).

    Sw plantera is ‘to plant’ and a planta is what has been newly planted, i.e. a ‘baby plant’ (meanings which might have pleased Michael Marder more).

  11. From this it follows that the Goidels and the Britons were so exceptionally primitive that they had no children before the Romans came. I expect they maintained the population by kidnapping continentals.

    That made me laugh so loudly it startled my wife.

  12. marie-lucie says:

    When I came to North America I was startled by the term “physical plant” on a sign on campus.

  13. Stefan: Indeed, that sense of plant was current in English until the 18C, and survived regionally, at least until the mid-20C, in the sense ‘young cabbage’.

    Marie-Lucie: That sense of ‘plant’ is a bit of a mystery. The 1789 quotation that Marder mentions has the following context:

    That every thing useful, and every thing ornamental, first revived in Italy, is well known; but I was never aware till now, though we talk of Italian book-keeping, that the little cant words employed in compting-houses, took their original from the Lombard language, unless perhaps that of Ditto, which every moment recurs, meaning Detto or Sudetto [‘the aforementioned —JC], as that which was already said before: but this place has afforded me an opportunity of discovering what the people meant, who called a large portion of ground in Southwark some years ago a plant, above all things. The ground was destined to the purposes of extensive commerce, but the appellation of a plant gave me much disturbance, from my inability to fathom the meaning of it. I have here [in Verona &mdashJC] found out, that the Lombards call many things a plant; and say of their cities, palaces, &c. in familiar discourse — che la pianta è buona, la pianta è cattiva [The plant is a good or a bad one], &c.

    So this use of plant is not a native sense-development, but one borrowed from Lombard (cf. Italian pianta). But what does not appear is why such a word (whose Italian senses are ‘plant’, ‘map’, and ‘sole’) should come to be a generic noun.

    What is more, the next three OED quotations are all in scare-quotes with explanations, and it is not until 1881 that we find a quotation in which plant is used in this sense as if the ordinary reader is expected to know what it means.

  14. Richard J. says:

    Which rather suggests the OED is missing out on a corpus somewhere, as s12 of the Customs and Inland Revenue Act of 1878 uses the phrase ‘machinery and plant’ undefined.

    http://www.irishstatutebook.ie/1878/en/act/pub/0015/print.html

    Of course, there’s been an awful lot of case law since firming up the boundaries of this loose bit of drafting..,

  15. Bathrobe says:

    a planta is what has been newly planted

    In English a ‘planting’ can be used for a large patch of ground on which a crop has been planted or the crops that have been planted. I think it tends to imply that the crop has not yet come to fruition, although I could be wrong.

  16. David Marjanović says:

    Sw växt with cognates all over Scandinavia is generic for all members of the plant kingdom

    German Gewächs “a growth”, “plant” – but only in specialized senses, usually in compounds; the generic word is Pflanze… which was most likely borrowed in an agricultural context at first, judging from Pflanzen und Bäume and Blumen und Pflanzen which seem to be common phrases in some areas.

  17. Ah, those primitive Basques, so close to the vegetable world they can’t see the forest for the trees!

    It’s worse than that — they can’t even see the trees (for the birches, oaks, peas, etc.)

    Beware: some of these efforts may misfire. In Japanese, for instance, vegetation is shokubutsu (植物), related to grass in the form of straw or hay. Now, that is hardly an improvement!

    As Bathrobe says, this is pretty goofy. I’m not even sure what they mean by it — 植物 doesn’t have any particular etymological connection to grass, straw or hay specifically. In fact if you’re going to get all etymological about it, 植物 literally means “planted things” (as opposed to “moving things” 動物, i.e. animals) and so presumably emits the same contaminatory connotations of passivity, imprisonment, etc. as English “plant.”

  18. David Eddyshaw: I’ve heard it said that in Old Irish “clann” meant a group of people within eight degrees of relationship. Under the Brehon Laws, you could be held responsible for the actions of anyone within this group–to be required to pay an éiric, for example. That is sort of related to the concept of a tree, but that seems like stretching it a bit far to imagine a relationship.

    I didn’t know that it came from Latin though. How do we know that? We don’t have any written Old Irish (or Welsh, I believe) until after they came in contact with Latin speakers. A lot of Celtic words have a common origin with the Latin branch (athair/pater, etc.). Is there a way to distinguish a loanword from a common ancestor when there are no historical records.

    A related word with great import in Ireland is “plantation”. A later word I imagine, but its history could be interesting.

  19. David Marjanović says:

    Is there a way to distinguish a loanword from a common ancestor when there are no historical records.

    In this case, yes: Proto-Celtic had lost /p/ completely (except, in some form or other, behind /s/). British Celtic then developed a new /p/ from /kʷ/; Irish continued to lack it till after St. Patrick introduced enough loanwords that had it.

    So, Roman-age pre-Welsh borrowed Latin planta by interpreting the /p/ as its new /p/; Irish then borrowed the result by interpreting the /p/ as the closest thing it had left, which was /k/ (…well, /kʷ/ actually, which merged into /k/ soon thereafter). That’s why it’s clann and not lann or something. It’s also why St. Patrick shows up in an Ogham inscription as QATRIKIAS.

  20. Patrick was Cothraige in Old Irish

  21. What’s unpredictable, though, is what counts as the “closest thing”. In Russian the closest thing to /h/ used to be /g/; now it’s /x/. Arabic also lacks /p/ (Proto-Semitic /p/ > /f/) but imports it as /b/ rather than a velar or postvelar, leading to this (somewhat dated) joke:

    “I’m going to Bombay on vacation next week.”

    “Bombay, India, or Bombay, Italy?”

  22. David Marjanović, mollymooly: Very interesting!

  23. Bathrobe says:

    In Russian the closest thing to /h/ used to be /g/; now it’s /x/.

    And of course the Russian has been mindlessly imported into languages like Kazakh and Mongolian, so that Hermes is Гермес and hydrology is гидрология in Kazakh and гидрологи in Mongolian.

  24. David Marjanović says:

    In Russian the closest thing to /h/ used to be /g/;

    Probably it never was, and awareness of the Ukrainian shift of /g/ to [ɦ] is to blame instead.

    Kazakh, BTW, has a /h/ and a letter for it: Һ һ. And yet, Gamlet, Prince of Denmark, wherein something is noticeably rotten.

  25. The traditional pronunciation of g in Church Slavic words used to be of the Southern type, with [ɦ ~ ɣ], word-finally [x]. The fashion changed in the course of the 20th c., but note /box/ for Бог

  26. Stefan Holm says:

    Apropos sounds being rendered differently: I may have mentioned this earlier but some decade ago I assisted a co-worker from Poland (married to a Swede) in learning the fine-tuning of Swedish. I noticed that she couldn’t separate /ø/ from /o/. She said /mork/ instead of /mørk/ (‘dark’). When I pointed this out- you should say /mørk/ – she answered in anger: ‘But that’s exactly what I’m saying’!

    I realized, the problem – she didn’t hear the difference! There is no /ø/ sound in Polish. It’s there in Finnish, Norwegian, Danish, German, French (spelled -eu-), Hungarian, Turkish etc. but not in Slavic (or English). My conclusion was that if you don’t hear a sound as a baby (or at least as a toddler), there will be no receptor in your brain to recognize it. Instead you will associate it with something close, which is there in your brain.

    The Russian rendition of my surname as either Голм or Холм could be explained by the absence of an /h/ in Slavic.Maybe this should be taken into account, when trying to explain the e.g. peculiar p-q difference in Celtic? If a sound disappears from a language and then is brought back by contacts or borrowings, it may turn up in a way that’s closest familiar with the borrowing part.

    When I back in the stone age took three years of Russian I remember my – eleven – class mates having enormous problems grasping the ‘bizarre’ ы-sound. I myself was though complimented by my teacher for pronouncing it perfectly. Don’t ask me why. It may have saomething to do with the fact, that ‘ы’ actually exists isolated in Swedish some both dialects and sociolects.

    Among larger languagees it can be noticed that Hollywood never learned to pronounce the German word ‘Herr’. It goes like the ‘e’ in ‘Brecht’. And of course no one from the British isles or the northern part of the western hemisphere has been able to correctly pronounce the names of Goethe or Hölderlein. Not to talk of the Andrew Sisters. This clip is perhaps ironic (but the appeareance of Groucho Marx excuses everything). https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xe2UXccid40

  27. “Hölderlin”, bitte. And while my German is basically nonexistent, my German pronunciation is near-native, if rather old-fashioned.

  28. David Marjanović says:

    I’m not sure what an old-fashioned German pronunciation would be. The only feature that comes to mind is alveolar [r] (with plenty of geographic variation).

  29. It’s rhotic (though uvular), for one thing; my mother was born in 1919 and grew up speaking very conservative Standard German rather than local dialect, as I’ve described before.

  30. David Marjanović says:

    Rhotic? I don’t think that’s old-fashioned anywhere; where rhoticity is gone, it disappeared long ago. There are western varieties that retain /r/ behind short vowels, AFAIK; is that what you mean?

    Otherwise, Tyrolean retains it behind /ɛ/ and /o/, and of course Switzerland and Vorarlberg remain fully rhotic, but that’s it.

  31. Is there a writeup in English of when and where German became non-rhotic? Dr. Google is not helpful today.

    I don’t know how my mother’s Original Horrible Aunts spoke, but they made sure that she learned a very bookish pronunciation, except for final -g = ch and merging long e and long ä.

  32. David Marjanović says:

    Is there a writeup in English of when and where German became non-rhotic?

    Probably there isn’t even one in German.

    I only know three pertinent facts:
    1) From what I’ve read, there is or was a dialect in west-central Upper Austria where /r/ didn’t disappear, but instead became /x/ in all or many cases; the example word given is Kerzen “candles”. I think that’s on Wikipedia or a few clicks away. I’ve also never heard this; this particular feature may well be extinct now, though it evidently survived into the 20th century.
    2) Maria Theresia, de facto empress from 1740 to 1780, at some point transplanted people from an unspecified place (or several) in Upper Austria to what is now the Ukrainian part of the Carpathians. Those people still speak their dialect. I once heard them, on TV, sing about a dark night; it sounded like my own dialect, except that finstere “dark” came out as [ˈfɪnstɛrɛ]. The non-rhotic kinds of German, including both of mine, assimilate vowels to following /r/; unstressed /ɛ/ becomes /ɐ/ – so we have trouble spelling separat and Temperatur –, and indeed finstere comes out as [ˈfɪnstɐʀɛ] when I say it. Likely, then, that dialect spoken in Ukraine is rhotic, and non-rhoticity is an innovation of the end of the 18th century at the very earliest.
    3) There’s no trace of rhoticity in my grandparents and their generation in non-western Austria.

    merging long e and long ä

    This is so close to universal it doesn’t count as not bookish anymore. The distinction is upheld in Frankfurt, in Switzerland, and probably some of the rest of the west, but not elsewhere; it may never have existed in the north.

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