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Word-names and name-words

May 14, 2010

Recently, I have been learning Icelandic. Old Icelandic, specifically, but what with being the language of a small remote island with very little outside immigration (as in, genetic researchers go there because the gene pool is so concentrated) Modern Icelandic is basically the same as Old Icelandic barring some spelling changes.

I have been using the online dictionary of Icelandic inflections, the Beygingarlýsing Íslensks nútímamáls, to help track down infinitives which look nothing like their finite forms, of which there are many. (English example: you can get from loved back to the infinitive love quite easily by subtracting the d, but how the hell is a non-native speaker supposed to work out that brought will be in the dictionary under bring? English could really do with its own inflectional dictionary.) During one recent expedition I got sidetracked, however, looking at the grammatical terms.

The Icelandic for feminine noun (as in, grammatically feminine, which may or may not have anything to do with the noun’s actual sex) is Kvenkynsnafnord. Long word! But it comes apart quite easily into kven+kyns+nafn+ord – ‘woman-kind-name-word’. Which is, after all, what a feminine noun is.

As it happens, feminine noun is pretty much a translation of kvenkynsnafnord: it comes from the Latin feminea ‘like a woman’ and nomen ‘name’. But, regardless of the fact that we use a phrase meaning the exact same thing, it seems laughable to conduct English grammar in terms of womankind namewords instead of feminine nouns. Why?

I have recently been reading a large and wonderful book called Le Ton beau de Marot, by Douglas Hofstadter (he of Gödel, Escher, Bach). It is a compendious tome of musings about the nature of language and the concept of translation, touches on just about everything, and I would wholeheartedly recommend it.* One of the many odd linguistic points that Hofstadter raises is that of compound words. Compounds derived from languages one doesn’t speak are unfamiliar and therefore invisible, and compounds in one’s native vocabulary are familiar and therefore invisible. Football is still closely related to foot+ball, but cupboard now bears only a tenuous resemblance to cup+board, and how many people consciously clock that wardrobe is a compound at all?

Nameword, in other words, only stands out because it’s sufficiently new that we see the separate components before we see the whole word, rather than absorbing it as a single unit.

Now nameword is undeniably a translation of noun. But a translation into what? Not into English: noun is an English word. Not into Anglo-Saxon, either; that would be wordnama. Nameword is in fact a translation into a language that doesn’t exist, a language that has undergone all the sound- and spelling-changes that time has inflicted to bring us to Modern English, whilst retaining only Anglo-Saxon roots. That’s a vastly artificial set of requirements; the chances of any language actually managing to survive so long and stay so pure are very low, and tend to require the country it’s in to be small, remote, and not really worth invading. (See: Iceland.)

Let’s say, however, that this language exists. In a parallel universe, this island was never invaded after the Vikings, and was coincidentally xenophobic enough to zealously resist all foreign word-imports for a thousand years. Even as we speak, Anglaland ells are plastering their crates with St Edmund’s banners, and stashing away the mead in readymaking for the World Cup, I am about to take my gemeet in Anglish Bookcraft, and Nick Griffin has just been chosen First Alderman.

Anglaland is truly a hellish kingdom, but forwardgoing – their aldermen hold a foreverkept seat on the Safedom Moot at the Togethered Reaches, and their wisemen and thingmakers are at the forefront of worldkennish gainseeking. The latter, in truth, are making awesome newfindings every day – such as their groundbreaking beholding of the uncleft, as drawn-out by writer Poul Anderson:

The underlying kinds of stuff are the firststuffs, which link together in sundry ways to give rise to the rest. Formerly we knew of ninety-two firststuffs, from waterstuff, the lightest and barest, to ymirstuff, the heaviest. Now we have made more, such as aegirstuff and helstuff.

The firststuffs have their being as motes called unclefts. These are mightily small; one seedweight of waterstuff holds a tale of them like unto two followed by twenty-two naughts. […]

At first it was thought that the uncleft was a hard thing that could be split no further; hence the name. Now we know it is made up of lesser motes. There is a heavy kernel with a forward bernstonish lading, and around it one or more light motes with backward ladings. The least uncleft is that of ordinary waterstuff. Its kernel is a lone forwardladen mote called a firstbit. Outside it is a backwardladen mote called a bernstonebit. The firstbit has a heaviness about 1840-fold that of the bernstonebit. Early worldken folk thought bernstonebits swing around the kernel like the earth around the sun, but now we understand they are more like waves or clouds.

Bits of the essay were also reprinted in Le ton beau de Marot; the whole thing can be found (with accreditation) here. Firstly, Poul Anderson’s a genius – plenty of people would have folded, helplessly, when asked to de-Latinize the word ‘neptunium’. But no, Anderson looks at Germanic mythology and calques it into aegirstuff – Aegir being the Norse god of the sea. Secondly, this wonderfully weird essay singlehandedly proves that we do not notice how much of English is stolen from other places. Even the people raving about how England isn’t English anymore because of all the zomg brown people are not so dedicated as to purge their vocabularies of un-Anglo-Saxon words. (So far, anyway.)

It’s striking how alien English seems when it’s stripped back to its core and rebuilt from there – alien, or ridiculous. The example I’m thinking of now is names: Old English and Old Icelandic names have a wonderful, rugged, golden air to them, reminiscent of high halls and streaming banners and people hacking one another to death in muddy fields. Listen to them. Aethelred, Beowulf, Aeschere, Byrhthelm, Hereward, Hildegyth are they not beautiful? Are they not musical? And yet calque them back into Anglish (as it were) and they sound ridiculous: Noble-advice, Bee-wolf, Ash-battle, Bright-helm, Battle-ward, Battle-death. The last few in particular sound like you’ve run into a bunch of teenage cosplayers at a Tolkien convention.

The point about how we don’t notice compounds when they’re either alien or second-nature applies in spades here. Someone at a convention calling himself Aeschere gets Awesome Points because it sounds good (ASH-heyra), looks good (bonus if you spell it with an Æ) and is authentic (obscure character in Beowulf). The same guy calling himself Ash-battle or Battle-ash will probably get mercilessly mocked because it just doesn’t do the same things: its components are too visible.

The thing is that this is just what the Anglo-Saxons did: most names were compound nouns. I imagine that Anglo-Saxon parents didn’t hear the individual words in Aeschere the same way that modern people don’t hear them in wardrobe – it would have been second nature. It’s strange, though, that we don’t do this any more: very few modern, mainstream English names are constructed from modern, mainstream English words, despite the number of names that are still compounds. Your chances of meeting a kid called Man-defender are nil, but I know five people called Alexander. There are Jonathans all over the place, but few God-has-givens. Hundreds of Elizabeths, but no God-in-abundances.

When did we stop giving children names in our own language? And why?


* With one caveat/warning (caveat! being Latin for watch out!) At one point Hofstadter discusses Websters’ New Intergalactic Wickedary of the English Language, by Jane Caputi and Mary Daly. Yeah, that Mary Daly. Hofstadter handles it with a certain bemused interest as one might expect of a middle-aged, rather traditional male academic examining the work of a pair of lesbian-separatist radical feminists, and is understandably (given the nature of his book) more interested in the language Daly & Caputi created than in their politics. None of the entries he quotes are to do with transsexuality or trans people; but several are about women, and well, whenever Mary Daly writes the word ‘woman’ it basically has an invisible footnote saying “Except trans women, who do not deserve to exist.” So yeah. Pages 207-212 made for uncomfortable reading for me, and I guess could make for much worse than ‘uncomfortable’ for trans readers.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. May 14, 2010 2:22 pm

    Translating names back into English is fun: after meeting someone called Light Light Keeper of Horses, I was inspired to grab an etymological dictionary and style myself National Thunder Long Ford Beaver Stream. As for why children are not given names in our own language any more, well, there is a marked African tendency to do just that; names like Precious, Sunday, and the like, are often seen among African speakers of English. Other popular names in parts of Africa include Grace and Victor, which are seen as just names when a British baby gets them, but are taken there also as the English words they recognisably are, when you look at them. The fact that this is no longer the rule but the exception is probably a matter of class, most British peculiarities are; did you know, for example, that the bizarre pronunciation of Featherstonehaugh is nothing more than the deliberate insistence of an old family on being pronounced differently from the lower-class village that gave them their name?

    I don’t think there’s anything especially disturbing about Hofstadter’s discussion of Jane Caputi and Mary Daly, particularly since he expresses his own heartfelt distaste for their view of the world, though from the perspective of a man rather than a transwoman. Caputi and Daly think a Y chromosome makes you evil from birth, so I think it’s safe to say Hofstadter is no friend to any of their political opinions.

  2. May 14, 2010 4:40 pm

    Giving my name translated into etymological blocks doesn’t count as blowing anonymity, right? It would have to be a really intellectual psycho, to work backwards from that, track me down, and then stand outside my house yelling, “YOUR LACK OF CONCERN ABOUT MARY DALY IS IRRESPONSIBLE, AND YOUR GENERALISATIONS ABOUT AFRICA ARE OVERSIMPLIFIED!”

  3. wickedday permalink
    May 15, 2010 12:03 am

    Yeah. Given the number of languages in the world, you could potentially be called just about anything. Also, and this is probably also an act of gross cultural insensitivity, but Long Ford Beaver Stream sounds like it could be someone’s name, in the right place. It’s the coincidence of Ford and Stream that does it, I think – it sounds like it could be a place.

  4. May 15, 2010 1:15 pm

    That’s what delighted me about the conjunction of the two, to the point where I was almost tempted to switch them around a bit and go with Long Beaver Stream Ford. Though having the words in that odd order sounds kind of Native American in itself, in the mode of the place in Alberta, Canada called Head-Smashed-In Buffalo Jump.

    National Thunder, meanwhile, has to be a racehorse.

    Beloved Horses’ Friend Bright Brave Counsellor?

  5. Paul Skinner permalink
    June 22, 2010 10:27 am

    *Mumbles something about Beaver Stream sounding like a euphemism*


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