GEORGE ELIOT, HISTORICAL LINGUIST.

I finally remembered to share this tidbit from Middlemarch (we’re over two-thirds of the way through the novel, and will soon have to start thinking about what to follow it with for our nightly readings); it’s from Chapter 48:

But Mr Casaubon’s theory of the elements which made the seed of all tradition was not likely to bruise itself unawares against discoveries: it floated among flexible conjectures no more solid than those etymologies which seemed strong because of likeness in sound, until it was shown that likeness in sound made them impossible: it was a method of interpretation which was not tested by the necessity of forming anything which had sharper collisions than an elaborate notion of Gog and Magog: it was as free from interruption as a plan for threading the stars together.

The section I have bolded shows a grasp of the (then brand-new, and revolutionary) theory of the regularity of sound change that is still rare today. I am coming more and more to think that if I could have dinner with a novelist from the past, it would be Ms. Evans. (Forget Tolstoy: I can get harangued by overexcited hypocrites in my own time.)

Comments

  1. This is a bit wrong, and a bit over-stated. The theory of strict regularity of sound-change was a Neogrammarian development, and postdates Middlemarch (1871). What you’re referring to is the more general consideration of sound-change in determining etymologies–which was hardly new in 1871, not even in England, as Donaldson had published his magisterial treatises on Boppian philology in 1839 and 1844.

  2. Well, all right, ruin my fun. But I’d still like to have dinner with her.

  3. Fair enough, but preferably through a screen. She was not an attractive woman!

  4. hjælmer says:

    What a disgraceful thing to write, Conrad!

  5. I hope you’re pronouncing My Casaubon’s name to yourself with the stress correctly on the second syllable, and not as the BBC had it in both the TV and radio adaptations a few years ago, stressing the first syllable – despite advice from the Pronunciation Unit!

  6. PS That should be MR Casaubon of course, not “My”.

  7. Arthur Crown says:

    Graham: second syllable
    Thank you, I’ve wondered about that for a long time. First-syllable stress always sounds wrong, anyway.

  8. I hope you’re pronouncing My Casaubon’s name to yourself with the stress correctly on the second syllable
    Of course—it never occurred to me to pronounce it any other way. (Of course, that’s probably because I heard it pronounced correctly by one of my college professors.)
    and not as the BBC had it in both the TV and radio adaptations a few years ago, stressing the first syllable
    *bangs head on desk*

  9. To be fair, Isaac Casaubon’s surname is generally (in my experience) pronounced with the stress on the first syllable.

  10. I’ll be sure you’re invited next time we have dinner, Hat. You’re sure you don’t want Leo as well?

  11. Isaac Casaubon’s surname is generally (in my experience) pronounced with the stress on the first syllable.
    Really? It seems bizarre to me to reduce “au” to a schwa. If it were Casabon, sure.

  12. You’re sure you don’t want Leo as well?
    Quite sure. He’d either want to drag us out for a night of debauchery or deliver a spittle-flecked rant against debauchery. It would doubtless amuse Ms. Evans, but I’m too old for that sort of thing.

  13. One such impossible etymology: the Italian “dì” (as in “un bel dì”) is – surprisingly to non-linguists – no pair to English “day” – we expect a systematic d-f correspondence between the two languages (fuori/door; fumo/dust; feroce/deer; fare/do — these are in fact etymologically related pairs); the close English correspondent to EN “day” is in fact IT “favilla.”
    Though still, it might be more proper to say that likeness in sound makes them impossible *within an already-established systematic relationship*.

  14. Yes, but we don’t want to get into Babbage territory.
    (Charles Babbage wrote to Tennyson: “In your otherwise beautiful poem, one verse reads,
    Every moment dies a man,
    Every moment one is born.
    If this were true, the population of the world would be at a standstill. In truth, the rate of birth is slightly in excess of that of death. I would suggest:
    Every moment dies a man,
    Every moment 1 1/16 is born.
    Strictly speaking, the actual figure is so long I cannot get it into a line, but I believe the figure 1 1/16 will be sufficiently accurate for poetry.”)

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