Tuesday, February 5, 2013

On Etymologies, Scholars and Shoddiness

On Etymologies, Scholars and Shoddiness

In my perusal of a variety of sources in recent times, I have become painfully aware of one thing:
Scholars of a variety of fields suck at verifying etymologies.
You can find it in Karen Armstrong's The History of God giving the following definition and etymology of ashkenazim in its glossary:
Ashkenazim (Hebrew corruption of 'Allemagne')-The Jews of Germany and parts of eastern and western Europe.
 The Swedish translation got this even worse, presenting the following fantastic distorted translation:
Ashkenazim (Judisk förvrängning av 'Tyskland')-... (my backtranslation: Ashkenazim (Jewish distortion of 'Germany')
For a reader not particularly knowledgeable about linguistics even this seems nonsensical. Swedish translators normally have a degree in applied linguistics, so ... this bothers me quite a bit.

Anyways, ashkenaz is a word that appears in the Hebrew Bible, and which tribe it referred to there is not certain - it only appears in three verses, and so cannot have been a particularly important tribe to Hebrew affairs. By rabbinic times, this had become associated to somewhere near by the Caucasus mountains (although it is possible this also was the original meaning), and in medieval times it had been reapplied to Germany, probably gradually in a westward movement. Involving corruption of Allemagne is not really called for. Similar reapplications of Biblical names happened, as Edom was reapplied to Rome, Sepharad to Spain (probably originally a town in Anatolia, but this is not certain either), and Tzarfat to France. It is more likely these are some kind of code than distortion of the names of the countries.

But you find it elsewhere as well, in James Randi's An Encyclopedia of Claims, Frauds, and Hoaxes of the Occult and Supernatural, you find the following etymology of ghost:
ghost From the German geist, for “spirit.”
His Encyclopedia does, at times, contain a fair share of clear and humorous exaggerations - examples such as "Abaris is said to have lived without eating or drinking. This, coupled with the fact that his pupil Pythagoras is supposed to have stolen his golden arrow, must have resulted in a certain dissatisfaction with his life", or regarding Rasputin: "Doubtless the failure of the Czar to anticipate the revolution was due to his loss of the services of his mystic." Such clear untruths are acceptable in this work, as they are very clearly there for humorous effect, and anyone claiming that the Czar could have prevented the revolution by listening to Rasputin using Randi as a source for that claim lacks reading comprehension skills. However, ghost being derived from German lacks humor, does not really tell us anything, and is fundamentally wrong. So, how come these words are so similar? Elementary. A bit in excess of two millennia ago, English and German still did not exist. Instead, in southern Scandinavia and along the north sea coast, a language we today call Proto-Germanic was spoken. Eventually, as with all languages that strike lucky, the number of speakers grew, and the area the speakers covered got bigger. Over time, the speakers in different locations generalized different grammatical details in slightly different ways, had their words change meanings in different ways as contact between groups in different parts of the lands they covered was reduced, had different sound changes occur (such as the loss of nasals before dental fricatives in some of the north sea Germanic languages, c.f. English mouth, Swedish mun, German Mund and North Frisian müd). These changes and others turned that language into the languages we find in the area today. Already in antiquity these tribes believed in the existence of ghosts. And they had words for them, among them the word from which English ghost, German geist, Swedish gast, and a bunch of other cognates derive. By knowing roughly which sound changes have occurred in the different languages, and the form the word has taken in the earliest attested variety of these languages, as well as cognates outside of Germanic and the changes that happened between Proto-Indo-European and Proto-Germanic, we can be fairly confident that *gaistaz is a good guess as to the form the word from which geist and ghost appear. We would need a huge bunch of a lot less likely and a lot less regular sound changes to get a loan like geist to appear as ghost - we would expect something more like gaist or such if it were indeed a recent loan from German.

Neither Karen Armstrong or Randi use these factoids to argue any bigger point, though, and thus these mistakes are less critical in assessing their works than the multiple similarly shoddy etymologies used as actual arguments in Acharya's works - neither Randi or Armstrong derive any conclusion from these etymologies. However, I urge every scholar who has not put effort into understanding linguistics to avoid writing about etymology unless they expend quite a bit of effort to verify every etymological detail they include in their works.

In perpetuating shoddy linguistic claims, the general populace is miseducated about language, and language is already a thing your average Joe thinks he knows way more about than he actually does. It further gives cranks that use false etymologies a leverage against criticism - "I am not doing anything wrong here, just look at Karen Armstrong and James Randi, they too present claims about language pulled out of thin air!" is not a defense I want cranks like Maxwell Jordan and Acharya S to start using. Bullshit etymologizing is in use by pretty much every new age crank in existence already, let us not make the bullshit more justifiable by being shoddy about it ourselves.

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