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Author: borja

Reindeer = rein + deer?

Reindeer = rein + deer?

In linguists’ jargon, a ‘folk etymology’ refers to a change that brings a word’s form closer to some easily analyzable meaning. A textbook example is the transformation of the word asparagus into sparrowgrass in certain dialects of English.

Although clear in theory, it is not easy to decide whether ‘folk etymology’ is called for in other cases. One which has incited heated coffee-time discussion in our department is the word reindeer. The word comes ultimately from Old Norse hreindyri, composed of hreinn ‘reindeer’ and dyri ‘animal’. In present-day English, some native speakers conceive of the word reindeer as composed of two meaningful parts: rein + deer. This is something which, in the Christian tradition at least, does make a lot of sense. Given that the most prominent role of reindeer in the West is to serve as Santa’s means of transport, an allusion to ‘reins’ is unsurprising. This makes the hypothesis of folk etymology plausible.

When one explores the issue further, however, things are not that clear. The equivalent words in other Germanic languages are often the same (e.g. German Rentier, Dutch rendier, Danish rensdyr etc.) even though the element ren does not refer to the same thing as in English. However, unlike in English, another way of referring to Rudolf is indeed possible in some of these languages that omits the element ‘deer’ altogether: German Ren, Swedish ren, Icelandic hreinn, etc.

Another thing that may be relevant is the fact that the word ‘deer’ has narrowed its meaning in English to refer just to a member of the Cervidae family and not to any living creature. Other Germanic languages have preserved the original meaning ‘animal’ for this word (e.g. German Tier, Swedish djur).

Since reindeer straightforwardly descends from hreindyri, it may seem that, despite the change in the meaning of the component words, we have no reason to believe that the word was altered by folk etymology at any point. However, the story is not that simple. Words that contained the diphthong /ei/ in Old Norse do not always appear with the same vowel in English. Contrast, for example, ‘bait’ [from Norse beita] and ‘hail’ [from heill] with ‘bleak’ [from bleikr] and ‘weak’ [from veikr]). An orthographic reflection of the same fluctuation can be seen in the different pronunciation of the digraph ‘ei’ in words like ‘receive’ and ‘Keith’ vs ‘vein’ and weight’. It is, thus, not impossible that the preexistence of the word rein in (Middle) English tipped the balance towards the current pronunciation of reindeer over an alternative one like “reendeer”. Also, had the word not been analyzed by native speakers as a compound of rein+deer, it is not unthinkable that the vowels may have become shorter in current English (consider the case of breakfast, etymologically descending from break + fast).

So, is folk etymology applicable to reindeer? The dispute rages on. Some of us don’t think that folk etymology is necessary to explain the fate of reindeer. That is, the easiest explanation (in William of Occam’s sense) may be to say that the word was borrowed and merely continued its overall meaning and pronunciation in an unrevolutionary way.

Others are not so sure. The availability of “fake” etymologies like rein+deer (or even rain+deer before widespread literacy) seems “too obvious” for native speakers to ignore. The suspicion of ‘folk etymology’ might be aroused by the presence of a few mild coincidences such as the “right” vowel /ei/ instead of /i:/, the fact that the term was borrowed as reindeer rather than just rein as in some other languages [e.g. Spanish reno] or by the semantic drift of deer exactly towards the kind of animal that a reindeer actually is. These are all factors that seem to conspire towards the analyzability of the word in present-day English but which would have to be put down to coincidence if they just happened for no particular reason and independently of each other. Even if no actual change had been implemented in the pronunciation of reindeer, the morphological-semantic analysis of the word has definitely changed from its source language. Under a laxer definition of what folk etymology actually is, that could on its own suffice to label this a case of folk etymology.

There seems to be, as far as we can see, no easy way out of this murky etymological and philological quagmire that allows us to conclude whether a change in the pronunciation of reindeer happened at some point due to its analyzability. To avoid endless and unproductive discussion one sometimes has to know when to stop arguing, shrug and write a post about the whole thing.

Words apart: when one word becomes two

Words apart: when one word becomes two

As any person working with language knows, the list of words from which we build our sentences is not a fixed one but rather is in a state of constant flux. Words (or lexemes in linguists’ terminology) are constantly being borrowed (such as ‘sauté’ from French), coined (such as ‘brexit’ from a blend of ‘Britain’ and ‘exit’) or lost (such as ‘asunder’, a synonym for ‘apart’). These happen all the time. However, two more logical processes exist that can alter the total number of entries in the dictionary of our language. Occasionally, lexemes may also merge, if two or more become one; or split, if one becomes two. These more exotic cases constitute a window into the fascinating workings of the grammar. In this blog I will present the story of one of these splitting events. It involves the Spanish verb saber, from Latin sapiō.

The verb’s original meaning must have been ‘taste’ in the sense of ‘having a certain flavour’, as in the sentence “Marmite tastes awful”. At some point it also began to be used figuratively to mean ‘come to know something’, not only by means of the sense of taste but also for knowledge arrived at by means of other senses. It is interesting that in the Germanic languages it seems that it was sight rather that taste that was traditionally used in the same way. Consider, for instance, the common use, in English, of the verb ‘see’ in contexts like “I see what you mean”, where it is interchangeable with ‘know’. Whether the source verb can be explained by the differences between traditional Mediterranean and Anglo-Saxon cuisines I’d rather not suggest for fear of deportation.

In any case, what must have been once a figurative use of the verb ‘taste’ became at some point the default way of expressing ‘know’. These are the two main senses of saber in contemporary Spanish and of its equivalents in most other Romance languages. The question I ask here is: do speakers of Spanish today categorize this as one word with two meanings? Or do they feel they are two different words that just happen to sound the same? There may be a way to tell.

In Spanish, unlike in English, a verb can take dozens of different forms. The shape of a verb changes depending on who is doing the action of the verb, whether the action is a fact or a wish etc. Thus, for example, speakers of Spanish say yo sé ‘I know’ but t sabes ‘you know’. They also use one form (so-called ‘indicative’) in sentences like yo veo que t sabes inglés ‘I see that you know English’ but a different form (so-called ‘subjunctive’) in yo espero que t sepas inglés ‘I hope that you know English’. The Real Academia Española, the prescriptive authority in the Spanish language, has ruled that, because saber is a single verb, it should have the same forms (sé, sabes etc.) regardless of its particular sense. Speakers, however, have trouble to abide by this rule, which is probably the reason why the need for a rule was felt in the first place. My native speaker intuition, and that of other speakers of Spanish, is that the verb may have a different form depending on its sense:

Forms of Spanish saber (forms starting with sab– in light gray, forms starting with sep– in dark gray)

The most obvious explanation for why this change could happen is that, when the two main senses of saber drifted sufficiently away from each other, speakers ceased to make the generalization that they were part of the same lexeme. When this happened, the necessity to have the same forms for the two meanings of saber dissappeared. But, why sepo?

Because cannibalism is on the wane (also in Spain) we hardly ever speak about how people taste. As a result, the first and second person forms of saber (e.g. irregular ) are only ever encountered by speakers under their meaning ‘know’. Because of this, they do not count as evidence for language users’ deduction of the full array of forms of saber. This meant that the first and second person forms of saber₂ ‘taste’, when needed (imagine someone saying sepo salado ‘I taste salty’ after coming out of the sea), had to be formed on the fly on evidence exclusive to its sense ‘taste’ (i.e. third persons and impersonal forms):

Because of the evidence available to speakers, at first sight it might seem strange that this ‘fill-in-the-gaps’ exercise did not result in the apparently more regular 1SG indicative form sabo. This would have resulted in a straightforward indicative vs subjunctive distinction in the stem. The chosen form, however, makes more sense when one observes the patterns of alternation present in other Spanish verbs:

Verbs that have a difference in the stem in the third person forms between indicative and subjunctive (cab- vs quep- or ca- vs caig-) overwhelmingly use the form of the subjunctive also in the formation of the first person singular indicative. This is a quirk of many Spanish verbs. It appears that, by sheer force of numbers, the pattern is spotted by native speakers and occasionally extended to other verbs which, like saber look like could well belong in this class.

In this way, the tiny change from to sepo allows us linguists to see that patterns like those of caber and caer are part of the grammatical knowledge of speakers and are not simply learnt by heart for each verb. In addition, it gives us crucial evidence to conclude that, today, there are in Spanish not one but two different verbs whose infinitive form is saber. Much like the T-Rex in Jurassic Park, we linguists can sometimes only see some things when they ‘move’.