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A Chat With Anatoly Liberman

Anatoly Liberman's picture
Date:Oct 29, 2006
Time:7 pm Pacific (GMT -8)
Topic:Word Origins
Duration:One hour

Transcript of the chat follows this introduction.

Anatoly Liberman's WORD ORIGINS AND HOW WE KNOW THEM: ETYMOLOGY FOR EVERYONE (a selection of the Book of the Month Club and four other clubs) came out last year.

Liberman, born and educated in Russia, emigrated to the United States with the degree of Doctor of Philology, which corresponds to the German-French habilitation (a degree entitling its bearer to full professorship), and was hired at once by the University of Minnesota, where he has taught the history of all the Germanic languages, from Gothic to Old Frisian and Middle Dutch, and various courses on folklore, mythology, and literary theory. He has also taught at Harvard, Freiburg and Kiel (Germany), Macerata (Italy), and Nagoya (Japan). As a guest lecturer, he has appeared at most major universities of North America and Europe.

His main areas of expertise include general and historical linguistics (with emphasis on phonology and etymology), history of science, medieval literature, folklore, poetic translation, literary criticism, English as a second language, and creative writing. Sixteen of his nearly 500 publications are books. Among them are ICELANDIC PROSODY, GERMANIC ACCENTOLOGY, WORD HEATH, annotated translations of the Russian poets Lermontov and Tyutchev in his translation (MIKHAIL LERMONTOV: MAJOR POETICAL WORKS and ON THE HEIGHTS OF CREATION: THE LYRICS OF FEDOR TYUTCHEV), three volumes of the works of N.S. Trubetzkoy (which he edited, annotated, and partly translated into English), a volume of Vladimir Propp's THEORY AND HISTORY OF FOLKLORE (also edited, annotated and partly translted by him), a similar volume of the Icelandic philologist Stefan Einarsson's works, a book of poetry in Russian, and WORD ORIGINS.

For the last twenty years Liberman has been working on a new etymological dictionary of English. WORD ORIGINS... is a byproduct of that work. Another "byproduct" is his blog "The Oxford Etymologist" (his weekly column appears on the website of Oxford University Press every Wednesday). The two-volume bibliography of English etymology and the first volume of the dictionary will be published by the University of Minnesota Press next year. Among his many awards are a Guggenheim, a research Fulbright, a Festschrift in his honor, a year-long fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, a fellowship from Clare Hall (Cambridge University), a prize for the best book in folklore and a prize for the best talk at an international congress of phonetic sciences.

Transcript of the chat

Anu Garg
Welcome to the 21st online chat at Wordsmith.Org!

Today we have the pleasure of chatting with Anatoly Liberman, a professor at the University of Minnesota. His areas of expertise include general and historical linguistics (with emphasis on phonology and etymology).

His latest book is "Word Origins and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone". He is joining us from Minneapolis.

Welcome, Anatoly Liberman!

Anatoly Liberman
Thank you!

Anu Garg
You're welcome to send your questions for Anatoly Liberman.

Jerry Frison - Canada
P'taah is considered an entity in the Jani King books. A variation on the spelling seems to go to the Egyptian. Could you shed any light on its origins?

Anatoly Liberman
Since the ancient Egyptians did not have an alphabet, the forms we see are only an attempt to render what is believed to be the pronunciation of those people. This is also true of all divine names.

Christopher - Oregon
English is one of the few European languages I am aware of that uses the 'th' sound, and the only Germanic language that uses it. Any ideas as to why it appeared in English or disappeared in most others.

Anatoly Liberman
It is sometimes possible to explain why something happened in language, but it is very difficult to account for the absence of a change. The usual circular explanation is that some languages are more conservative than others. Incidentally, th also exists in Icelandic, and it has developed in some Romance languages and dialects.

Christopher - Oregon
That's right! I remember being told some dialects of Spanish use 'th' instead of 's', as in 'Barthelona'.

Richard --New York City
What do you mean when you say that a language is conservative? Slow to change? Could you give examples of languages which are slow, or fast, to change?

Anatoly Liberman
"Conservative" is of course a relative concept. We have a certain idea of the past of a language. Thus we know reasonably well how Germanic sounded a thousand years ago. When we compare that stage with present day English, German, Danish, Icelandic, etc., we see that some of these languages are closer to the initial point than others and call them conservative. This is true of phonetics, grammar, and vocabulary in equal measure.

Betty- USA
Does etymology have practical uses, not just to help understand history, such as in investigating crimes?

Anatoly Liberman
Not really, unless obtaining a window into the workings of a human brain and the development of civilization can be called practical goals.

Jerry Frison - Canada
If, as some contend, the mother of the human race originated in Africa, are you aware of any speculation as to the first spoken language on earth?

Anatoly Liberman
Alas, no. We do not know when language originated or how. At present we are aware of the existence of several language families, and even their homes is debatable. Thousands of pages have been written on the home of the Indo-Europeans, for example.

jere barclay--Java
Ah, but do you know why it's pronounced "Barthelona"? Because the King had a lisp, and to spare him embarrassment, his subjects began to speak with a lisp, too. And they still do, although that King is long since dead. SQ

Anatoly Liberman
I have read this story too. I can understand that the court could have emulated a lisping monarch, but why should the whole country follow suit? I am afraid this theory is too good to be true.

Just a little aside, but do you think Larry David also heard the lisping-monarch story, since one episode had a restaurant-ful of people cursing to empathize with the chef with Tourette Syndrome? :)

Anatoly Liberman
Hard to tell. Linguistic mythology is much better known than linguistics, because it has been popularized in countless books for "the average reader."

For me the most practical use is to help in learning languages. This has the negative effect that I feel uneasy if I do not have any idea of the etymology of a word.

Anatoly Liberman
You are quite right. Students appreciate bits of etymological knowledge, as when, for example, we compare English SLIM and German SCHLIMM and point out that the words are related but acquired different meanings. But etymology cannot be the main tool in language instruction, though I always use it in my own teaching.

Norma Benesdra
For Argentine teachers it's easy to know the etymology of a word that comes from Latin or Greek but not Anglo Saxon.

Norma Benesdra
I wanted to ask when did the English language become non-declensional and why? After all it was conjugated like Latin, German and all Romance languages some four centuries ago?

Anatoly Liberman
English was less rich in morphology than Latin even at the earliest stage at which we find it. Middle English (roughly the period of Chaucer) witnesses a leveling of endings, and later even the few endings that survived Middle English disappeared.

Ardie - New Zealand
I have done a bit of teaching English as a second language. It is nearly impossible to explain our pronunciation differences for the same spelling. Have you encountered others that are anywhere nearly as inconsistent? (Examples: rough and through, or read and read (past tense) and red.)

Anatoly Liberman
No. English spelling is an incredible mess. On my blog "The Oxford Etymologist" that I write weekly for Oxford U. Press, I even have a rubric "The Oddest English Spellings." The horror of READ (present and past), ENOUGH (as in Greenough)/rough has no analogues anywhere in Germanic and Romance.

Christopher - Oregon
I've noticed that often, when a word can be both a verb and a noun with closely related meanings, there is usually a difference in stress, as in "proJECT" and "PROject" or "conDUCT" and "CO

Christopher - Oregon
Sorry, my finger slipped. Anyway, is there a pattern to where the stress is placed for a verb versus for a noun?

Anatoly Liberman
More or less, and there are reasons for the changing place of stress (present ~ to present, etc.) But there are some irritating exceptions, such as TRAVERSE, or the verb TRANSFER, which in American English is stressed on the first syllable.

Christopher - Oregon
What sort of relationship, if any, is there between folklore and etymology or historical linguistics?

Anatoly Liberman
Folklore is a very broad concept. If you include the whole of oral tradition in folklore, then etymology is of some use in reconstructing the function of ancient divinities. Thus Thor means "thunder," and so on, but etymology cannot explain the extant tales of Thor. Since etymology is based on historical phonetics/grammar, one can say that some connection between historical linguistics and folklore exists.

Do we know why there was a vowel shift in England when words like "day's eye" (the flower) changed their sound to daisy?

Anatoly Liberman
DAISY does not owe its origin to the vowel shift. It is the pronunciation of TAKE, OPEN, TIME and so on that has been affected by the shift. Old Germanic had a prosody entirely different from that of Modern English. When that system collapsed, vowels began to look for new realizations, and, as we know from modern dialects, keep doing it to this day. Standard English has codified only one variant of the shift, as anyone who leaves a BBC studio for the wide world immediately notices.

Kalin - USA-California
In reference to teaching etymology... Can you tell us how you teach etymology? Also, how do you think etymological teaching is or could be incorporated into primary and secondary education?

Anatoly Liberman
People always want to know the origin of words. Hence the tremendous popularity of word columns. But, unfortunately, etymology presupposes a grasp of countless technicalities. At school it would be enough to point out the most obvious connections in a student's native language (word formation). Sometimes a more sophisticated example may turn up (tenth ~ tithe). At college, etymology is part of historical linguistics. When I teach Gothic, Old English, Old Icelandic, Old High German, and Middle Dutch, elements of etymology are an integral part of the courses. But to repeat, those who are exposed to etymology already know sound correspondences and the rest.

Betty- USA
I'm not sure if this is on subject, but do you think that, since English has become *the international language*, many languages spoken by a few will die out? Or will English become so "regionalized" that a speaker from one culture won't understand much said by a speaker from another, in effect creating dialects and new languages?

Anatoly Liberman
Languages have been dying out throughout history, and there have often been languages of great prestige. I think that the future will not be dramatically different from the past. A tug of war between nationalism and globalization will continue.

Aren't changes in stress often explained by changing knowledge of the language of origin (e.g. French in the USA)?

Anatoly Liberman
It depends on the word. The present/ present story is the result of an internal change in a word borrowed from Old French. Sometimes people try to pronounce words as they sound in the lending language, but time is a powerful machine, and as the years go by, even the most exotic words acquire familiar, homey features. This is what happened to thousands of English words borrowed from Old French and which are now stressed on the first syllable.

Do you think literature plays a role in whether a language is conservative or not? For example, does the common knowledge or lack thereof of the King James Bible and Shakespeare's works have an effect on how much the language changes? Does the common knowledge of the Koran in Arabic make that a conservative language or is it so as a result of the conservative values of the society as a whole?

Anatoly Liberman
I think literature may be a conservative factor only in what concerns the preservation of some words (here the AV is an excellent example), but it is unable to affect language change on a grand scale.

Jerry Frison - Canada
Are you aware of any language that has not changed? If not, do you see, in this accelerating world of images a tendency towards shorter spoken words?

Anatoly Liberman
I am not aware of any languages that have not changed at all. For instance, Icelandic sounds have changed drastically, whereas its grammar is nearly the same as in the Saga age. In principle, words in all languages tend to become shorter and shorter, but, to see it, one needs several, even many centuries of observation. So-called allegro forms certainly win the day.

Jerry Frison - Canada
Regarding the Shakespeare - de vere camp standoff, do you think any conclusive evidence as to the scope and depth of Shakespeare's words lend any credence to the argument that his lack of experience of foreign destinations would force consideration of the de Vere claims of authorship?

Anatoly Liberman
This debate is both endless and hopeless. As you know, there have been several candidates for the opening called "Shakespeare." Someone wrote those plays, and someone was called William Shakespeare. My rather extensive reading of this literature has convinced me that the best candidate is still Shakespeare himself!

Jess - Canada
Do you think English is evolving faster now because of the Internet its ready access to languages and cultures all over the world?

Anatoly Liberman
It depends on which area of English you choose to examine. Sounds and forms remain intact, but usage and perhaps the choice of words is affected by the Internet. In the long run, these changes are like ripples on the surface of an ocean.

Anu Garg
And that was our last question for today.

Thank you, Anatoly Liberman, for being here today. For more, please visit his blog Oxford Etymologist.

Anatoly Liberman
My pleasure! It has been a most pleasant hour.

Anu Garg
Thanks to all for being a part of the chat. Our next Wordsmith Chat guest will be Joan H. Hall, Chief Editor of the Dictionary of American Regional English. It'll take place on Nov 14, 2006, 6 pm Pacific (GMT -8) at wordsmith.org/chat/dare.html. See you then!

Joey A. --- P'cola FL
Thank you, Messrs Garg and Liberman.

Thanks to all contributors and to you, Mr. Liberman.

Of course thanks to our LEADER OF THE PACK!

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