Thursday, October 06, 2005

Carnival of the Etymologies

One of my language correspondents wondered why English had given up its native word for "air" (Anglo-Saxon loft, lyft) for a French import. Good question! Languages tend to be most conservative with their most basic terms -- those describing basic facts of life, familial relationships, biological functions, body parts. True, English has been more radically altered than most tongues, but the native words for "fire" and "water" have persisted unchanged. Why is air an exception?

Unlike the case with "fire" and "water," the common ancestor of the Indo-European languages seems to have lacked a common word for "air." Air is, after all, a more elusive substance than fire and water, and so it may not have figured as powerfully in the imaginations of our Stone Age ancestors, who seem to have had a religious reverence for fire and water.

Instead, words for "air" in modern Indo-European languages tend to be associated with wind, brightness, sky. Some are of uncertain origin, including Greek aer, the ancestor (via Old French air, Latin ær) of English air. In Homer, this meant mostly "thick air, mist;" later it came to mean "air" as one of the four elements. The Greek word may be an offshoot of a base *awer- and thus related to aeirein "to raise," on the notion of "lifting, that which rises."

The native Germanic word for "air" is preserved in German Luft "air," as in Luftwaffe, the name of the German air force during World War II, which literally means "air-weapon."

It survives in English, too, in loft, aloft, and the verb lift. But none of these means "air," and none of them comes down directly from Old English. All are from Old Norse, the language of the Vikings. In the 9th century, the Vikings made massive incursions into all corners of England. They came in whole armies, and stayed for months or years. In many places they made permanent settlements and intermarried with the local population. The languages were as close or closer than modern Spanish and Italian, and words flowed and intermingled.

Modern aloft is Old Norse a lopti (Scandinavian -pt- was pronounced "ft"), which meant "up above," literally "up in the air." Lift is Old Norse lypta "to raise."

The key to the group is loft meaning "an upper chamber." It was in use in the late Anglo-Saxon period, after the Viking settlement period, and it comes from Old Norse lopt. This word in later Old Norse meant "air, sky," but its older sense, preserved in English, was "upper story, loft, attic."

Linguists have hypothesized that the Proto-Germanic root of all these words, *luftuz originally meant "loft, ceiling." The sense was extended, or transferred, to "sky, air" on the notion of the sky being the roof of the world. But the older sense was preserved in the Norse form of the word that came into English as loft.

The French-imported air drove out the native lyft after about 1300. It's just possible, I suspect, that with the luft group of words in early Middle English dispersed across a smear of meanings, from "upper story" to "sky," writers and speakers in bilingual post-1066 England reached for the more precise French word to describe "gasses in the atmosphere" when that was what was meant. Thus we got air where our Germanic brethren have retained their versions of luft.

As for the origin of luft, that is unknown. The linguist Carl Darling Buck suggested an ultimate connection with Old High German louft "bark," louba "roof, attic," with development from "bark" to "roof made of bark" to "ceiling," though this did not directly inform the meaning "air, sky."

English has three nouns air, none of them etymologically related. In addition to the common one described above, there is the noun meaning "assumed manner, affected appearance," which is used especially (now perhaps exclusively) in the phrase to put on airs. This seems to have entered English in the 17th century, from French air, whose ultimate source seems to be Latin ager "place, field" (the root of English acre), with a notion of "place of origin." Air in the sense of "manner, appearance" (e.g. an air of mystery) is attested in English in Shakespeare's time, and it seems to be an independent adoption of French air, which also had this sense.

The musical air, meanwhile, is a late 16th century Anglicization of Italian aria.

As for fire and water, the Proto-Indo-Europeans seem to have had two distinct words for each. English fire is from Old English fyr, ultimately from the Proto-Indo-European root *paewr-. All the German languages took their fire-words from this root (Old Frisian fiur, German Feuer), and it appears widespread across the Indo-European language group: Armenian hur "fire, torch," Czech pyr "hot ashes," Greek pyr, Umbrian pir, Sanskrit pu, Hittite pahhur "fire."

The other Proto-Indo-European root was *egni-, the root of Latin ignis, Sanskrit agnih "fire, sacrificial fire," Old Church Slavonic ogni, and Lithuanian ugnis "fire."

Linguists who have reconstructed Proto-Indo-European believe that the *paewr- root referred to fire as a substance and the *egni- root referred to fire as a living force.

The same duality seems to apply to water. The root *wed- referred to water as an inanimate substance. The root *ap- referred to water as a living force.

From the former comes English water (Old English O.E. wæter), German Wasser, Hittite watar, Sanskrit udnah, Greek hydor, Russian voda (and its derivative, vodka), Lithuanian vanduo, and Gaelic uisge (and its derivative, whiskey), all meaning "water," as well as Latin unda "wave."

The *ap- root is extinct in native English, though it was the source of ea, the common Old English word for "river." But it is represented by Sanskrit apah "water," Hittite akwanzi "they drink," Lithuanian uppe "a river," and Latin aqua "water," which of course has come into English as a living prefix.

The water that is used as a measure of quality of a diamond seems to be a translation of Arabic ma' "water," which also is used in the sense "lustre, splendor," as it well might be among a people for whom the sight of sheets of open water was a rare and wonderful thing.