16 September 2017

Shifty Double Agents (revisited)

In this post, we take a second look at the curious, and curiously similar, double lives of the verbs to hew and to cleave.

Part One: How “K” can equal “H” 

In Hewing and Gluing (March 2012), I explored how cleave and hew both mean “to chop, split, cut,” etc. and, strangely, the very opposite of splitting: “sticking to” or “staying close to.” I concluded by noting how odd it was that these two very distinct verbs, which don't appear to be linguistically related, could both share that same, strange conceptual double duty. I posited that perhaps the two words were, in fact, not so distinct from each other after all. I wondered whether the similarity the two words share goes beyond the conceptual. Whether, in fact, the words themselves might be “physically” related — or, in other words, cognate.

Since those first musings, I’ve learned about “Grimm’s Law,” a consonant shift that occurred a couple thousand years ago, breaking what would become the Germanic branch of Indo-European (IE) off from the main stem and its resulting non-Germanic IE descendants.[1] According to this pattern of shifts, some IE consonants changed in the Germanic branch: IE “p” became Germanic “f”, “t” became “th”, “b” became “p”, “d” became “t”, and so on for roughly a baker’s dozen consonants. Including “k” shifting to “h”.

Linguists have noted “k”-to-“h”-shifted cognates between, say, Latin and its descendants on one hand, and proto-
Germanic and its descendants on the other. The following table illustrates some examples, by first presenting a reconstructed Proto Indo-European (PIE) root, then a Latin word derived from that root, a modern French word derived from the root, a modern German, “h”-shifted word derived from the same root, and a modern English one. 

Proto Indo-European root
(the * means the root is "reconstructed," not attested)
Latin word based on rootmod. French from Latin wordmod. German word from IE rootmod. English from Germanic word
*kwon- [dog]canischienhund     hound
*ker- [horn]cornu   cornehorn          horn    
*kerd- [heart]cor          coeurherz       heart
*kaput- [head] [2]caput     chef (and all the -chap- root words)haupthead

All this to say that if we pick apart the modern English verbs to cleave and to hew we can imagine that they are in fact cognate, with the “k” sounding word shifted to the “h” sound:


That we have both a pre-shift derived word (cleave) and a shifted version (hew) might simply be due to when they entered the language. English being a voracious consumer of the rest of the world’s words, cleave might have been brought in from a different IE language sometime after the original word shifted to hew.

Part Two: Forehead slap

Now, to complicate things, we can consider something else. The title of my March 2012 post was “Hewing and Gluing,” making a sort of rhyming pun about of the dual concepts of splitting and sticking together. While thinking about the verb cleave in the new light of Grimm’s Law, I had a forehead-slap moment. I recognized that cleave almost 1000% is related to the modern German verb kleben – which means “to glue, affix.” 

B (-en)

Looking at this table, we can see that root of the German verb kleben (-kleb) might be seen as a bridge between cleave and hew.

Part Three: The mystery deepens, colloquially speaking

So we’ve seen that cleave and hew may in fact be structurally related. But there’s also possibly an idiomatic relationship between the English hew and German hauen. As noted in my very first post on these weird words, German hauen (chop) and English hew are cognate. Both have a chopping, cutting sense. If those two are cognate, then, if I’m right in my speculations above, hauen and German kleben are also cognate. Thinking about these words for this blog post, I recalled a colloquial German phrase: Hau ab! (infinitive abhauen), which means “get lost!” or “get out of here!” It suddenly struck me (cleaved me? hewed me?) that we have a colloquial English phrase to cut out, as it “he saw the look on her face and cut out of there without thinking twice.” We also have the colloquial to split as another way to indicate making a hasty departure from the scene. Stretching things just a bit further, we also have English to strike out for… as in “they struck out for Texas and we never saw them again.” The table showing relationships now looks even weirder:

B (-en)

Hew, cut, split, strike, abhauen -- What's going on here? What is it about this sense of cutting or hitting in both English and German that lends itself quick departures?

And still unanswered: What is this mysterious, dual conceptual relationship between striking, chopping, cutting, on one hand, and sticking, affixing, staying close to on the other? I’m no closer to a reasonable speculation on the answer to that one, but I imagine, in the next 5 years, I might come up with something!


[1] Grimm's Law is also known as the First Germanic Sound Shift (and some other terms). I learned about it listening to Kevin Stroud’s excellent History of English Podcast (especially episodes 4 “A Grimm Brother Resurrects the Dead,” and 21 “ Early Germanic Words”). This shift, which scholars believe probably happened a little over 2000 years ago, distinguishes modern Germanic languages from Latin, Greek, and other, more modern IE languages (paraphrased from Elly van Gelderen, A History of the English Language. John Benjamins, 2006, cited here).   https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-grimms-law-1690827

[2] This last one, the *kaput- root, is a good one to try to get our heads around. Although the modern German word for “head” is “Kopf,” there’s another word, “Haupt.” This latter word today is the adjective “main,” but originally meant both the body part “head” and the figurative word “head” or “chief.” Consider the German word for “captain,” which is “Hauptmann.” On the face of it, the English word "head" might not seem related with Latin-derived "cap" or "chief" or "capital.” But due to the consonant shift formalized as Grimm’s Law, we can see how they actually are. Old English "head" was "heafod,” which looks, not coincidentally, like modern German "haupt,” which in turn is a shifted version of the Latin word “caput”.

03 December 2013

Portraits of an Intimate Nature

Time for a post on photography...

I've got a few running themes that go through much of my photography. Some time ago, I decided I wasn't a landscape photographer, though I take plenty of pictures of nature. My nature shots tend to be more about details, close-ups — and yet it's not macro photography.

It occurred to me to begin thinking of my nature photography as portraits, intimate portraits in a way. Some quiet natural detail or moment -- often out of context.* I came up with this blog entry's title, meant as a play on words and also as a characterization of many of my nature images.

Rather than spend more words to try to describe what I mean, here is a selection of fifteen images to show you.

Portraits of an Intimate Nature
All of these pictures share a quiet, contemplative feeling that I can only describe as "intimate".

o - o - o

* "Out of context" is itself a running theme I apply to more than my nature photography.

29 November 2013

Advent Is Coming!

On the eve of Advent, a little exploration of things to come...

A few weeks ago, a friend was wondering what the German word Sonnabend means. The answer is "Saturday", but it's not the normal word for Saturday (that's Samstag). Hence his wonderment.

I started musing on why there's this second word for Saturday, and where that word might have come from.

My departure point is usually to think of other words with one or more of the same roots as my object of investigation. In this case:

  • Abend ("evening")
  • Feierabend (basically, "the end of the work day")

The latter adds to "evening" the concept of feiern (the verb "to celebrate"), which makes a lot of sense at the end of the work day. But why have a word that literally translates to "celebrate-evening" but designates the part of the day before the evening? Similarly, the Sonnabend designation of Saturday as "Sun-evening" seems to put the cart before the horse.

In both instances, -abend is used to designate a moment now, but before the other part of the word ("celebration" and "Sunday").

Maybe, I thought, I'm thinking of "evening" as too limited, as a specific evening part of the day. Maybe there's some more original idea in the word "evening".

Then it hit me how similar German Abend is to English (and others from Latin) advent! I don't know why it took me so long to get here... Because advent means, loosely, "something coming" (L. ad-venire = "to come to"). And then it also hit me how French avenir ("future", as in "something to come") also comes from the same L. root.

So "evening", Ger. Abend and the Fr. word for "future" are all related, and we can see that in our English use of an expression like "on the eve of..."

With this understanding, it becomes very clear why Germans might say Feierabend or Sonnabend, because they're talking about the thing to come, or in these cases, "celebration" and "Sunday".

And with that, if you hadn't already thought of it, I direct your attention to the first line of this entry.

Happy Holiday Evenings!

24 October 2013

Like, Where's That From?

The other day I was thinking about German suffixes, as one does, and their English equivalents. 

For example:

-heit  (E. -ness, as in Blindheit, or "blindness");
-keit (E. -ness, as in Einsamkeit, or "loneliness"); 
-schaft (E. -ness, as in Bereitschaft, or "readiness")*; or even 
-nis (-niß) (which, after all is said and done, also has a ness-ness to it).

I have a particular fondheit for the suffix -lich. It corresponds roughly to the English -ly suffix, and is used in German as a frequent adjectival ending. In English it's evident mostly in adverbs ("mostly", "quickly") and a few adjectives ("friendly", "likely"). 

Thinking about English -ly, it seems clear that it means like, as in "friend-like". Adverbially (which is the adverbial form of "adverbial"), you can see this connection in such a colloquialism as "quick-like" (instead of "quickly").** 

It doesn't seem hard to get from the use of -ly as a suffix — as a grammatical form appended to the end of a noun or adverb — to the stand-alone use of the word like, as in "this whisky is like molten gold". 

I'm not aware of a German word that looks like -lich and is at the same time used like like. That doesn't mean it doesn't exist. But since much of this blog's word play is about "speculative linguistics", I can speculate that we derive our English stand-alone like from the German -lich suffix, by way of our English -ly.

Is my speculation correct? I like to think it's likely.

- o - o -

* Okay, -schaft is more properly E. -ship, but that's a synonym for -ness.

** It's fortunate we have this colloquial form to resort to, because then we can make adverbs out of some awkward adjectives like "friendly". Saying something is "all friendly-like" is nicer than saying friendlily.

- o - o -

Now, where does the verb to like fit into all this? Maybe it began through the use of the above mentioned stand-alone like as a downgrading of to love. According to this theory, the first instance could have gone something like this:

He: Do you love me?
She: Hm, well...
He: Do you not love me?
She: I wouldn't say love, darling, but something very much like it. Not quite love, but like.

14 April 2012

Just sharin'

Today at the service garage, waiting for the mechanic’s verdict, I noticed an ad declaring “original parts” in numerous languages. The German version is Originalteile. "Part" in German is Teil.

I saw one I didn't recognize: Originální díly. Looks related to German Teil, but it doesn't look at all like a Germanic language. So I started to think about the connections...

Then it hit me: German Teil comes from the verb teilen, which means “to divide or share”. In at least some Slavic languages, the same concept is expressed by the root del- (e.g., delit' in Russian). So I'm homing in on a Slavic language for díly.

Further musing turns up these words in English and Italian, conceptually similar to sharing, as in "sharing something out", "dividing something up" (by cutting/slicing):
  • English tailor
  • Italian taglio (noun "a cut")
If we continue along this line, we'll probably start finding scads of relatives in this family, because what we've got here is an Indo-European root. All these words are cognates

  • Stumble upon another IE root? Check.
  • Discovered connections I hadn't thought of before? Check.
  • Originální díly? Czech.

06 March 2012

Hewing and Gluing

Have you ever been struck by a cleaver? No? Good!

How about by the word cleaver? I have. The verb cleave is something I’ve pondered for quite a few years (okay, not continuously). It can mean one thing, but also pretty much its exact opposite: "to cut apart" and "to hold together".

There are a number of things going on here... First, the cutting, chopping (or chopped) sense is in these words: to cleave, cleaver, cloven, cleft and probably cliff, and of course, cleavage. *

Speculating a little, I wonder if clover is related (with its distinctly separated or cloven leaves). Stretching a bit further afield, there’s also clove, which I believe takes its name from the French word clou, for “nail”, which the little pungent spicey thing resembles almost to a T. (Hint: nails are for pounding.)

There’s possibly even more. If, as a certain eminent linguist of my acquaintance likes to point out, “b” = “v”, then what about clobber, and from that a club? A club, in addition to being a weapon, is also what English speakers call the suit of cards that looks like a clover but the French call trefle, from trefoil or “three leaves”).

Is it just a coincidence that all of these words have some apparent kinship revolving around the concept of cutting, chopping, or hitting? Read on...

This cutting/chopping/separating idea is what most people today get from these words. But there’s another conceptual use of cleave that survives in older English and modern poetical or oratorical styles. There are phrases such as to cleave to your partner and cleaving to a path, for instance. Both of these phrases mean “to stick to...”, which is decidedly not akin to cutting, chopping, or hitting. **

I have fewer related words to show for this meaning of cleave, but that doesn’t diminish the puzzle for me. (Hint: that was foreshadowing.)

I think it’s pretty clear that this older “stick to” concept of cleave is related to the modern German verb kleben, which means “to stick, affix, glue”. I don’t know enough German to know whether there are kleb- words that also mean “to cut, chop, separate”.

But I do know another German word that somehow brings us back to the “cut apart–stick together” dichotomy: hauen. This verb means “to chop, cut, strike”. In fact, it resembles in no small measure our English hew, meaning the same thing. Again, it’s not part of the conversational lexicon for today’s English speakers, but it exists in phrases like rough-hewn or even to hew a path through a thicket or whatever.

Here’s where the puzzle, or “coincidence” gets most interesting. *** Because in the same sense that we have cleave to a path or cleave to your partner, we ALSO have hew to a path or hew to a line (“stay the course”)!

Huh? On one hand we have a word, cleave, that seems to come into English through German (though undoubtedly it’s an IE root) and can mean both “chop” and “stick together”. On the other hand we have an apparently very different word, hew, that seems to come into English though German and can mean both “chop” and “stick together” -- not just literally, but in the poetically idiomatic expressions: cleave/hew to a path.

How can two apparently unrelated words mean, on the one hand, one thing, and on the other, the exact opposite, in a poetical, figurative sense?

I suspect the answer is that cleave and hew are not as unrelated as they at first appear.

That still leaves the question of meaning one thing and its opposite... But, since this post has already clobbered you over the head with a lot of words, I think I’ll save the obligatory, revelatory trip to my OED for another time and just leave you with this thought:

Instead of asking at the start of this blog post whether you’d ever been struck by a cleaver, it seems I could have also asked if you’d ever been STUCK by a cleaver.

- o - o - 

* For readers who may remember that this blog is about words and pictures, I'm sorry to disappoint you on this one. (Oh, alright. Look here.)

** Unless you have to chop down trees to clear a path, beat up rival suitors to claim a spouse, or cut in on someone to dance with a desired partner.

** Cue daughter’s sigh: “Actually interesting? Or merely Dad interesting?”

28 February 2012


Overheard in a crowd in Stuttgart: Ich möchte dich ungerne verlieren.

Translation: "I would like to lose you [in the crowd] unwillingly" or "I would like unwillingly to lose you."

Instead of saying the equivalent of "I would NOT like to lose you", the speaker said she WOULD like to lose the other person, but unwillingly (ungerne).

What's going on here? I had never heard such a construction before. Seems a little convoluted for a simple thought. I wonder whether the speaker changed her mind mid-sentence...

Maybe my German-speaking acquaintances can enlighten me?