L.M.Fosse at L.M.Fosse at
Mon Jul 1 16:02:50 UTC 1996

George Thompson wrote:

>To summarize, I would claim, again, that the roots of historical etymology
>itself are firmly planted in the soil of folk etymology and puns.

I think this is putting it too strongly. In historical linguistics, sound
laws are naturally deduced on the basis of words of similar meanings that
look fairly similar (e.g. bhratar, frater, brodir; pitar, pater, fadir;
cornu, hornu etc). But the correspondences have to be consistent and
systematic, and the deduction of the sound laws quickly leads to the
discovery of etymological relationships where such are not superficially
evident. This is where the folk etymology differs from the historical
etymology: The folk etymology is based on superficial similarity, which
means that words that originally have nothing to do with each other can be
connected each other in a false etymology.

The grey zone I mentioned is, however, a real problem even to the
historical linguist. The example quoted by George is excellent in this
respect. This grey zone is also interesting because in ancient cultures
speculations on language lead to philosophical and theological
developments. In these contexts, folk etymology seems to have played an
important part. And this is where the historical linguist is on shaky
ground. It is wonderful to be able to tell what the *true* etymology of a
word is, but if this had no consequences to the ancient thinkers, it is an
insight of somewhat limited value. If on the other hand folk etymology
helped shape some of the ideas that constitute ancient thinking, the
scholar has to deal with a double problem: 1) to find the true etymology of
a word (which sometimes has explanatory value in a broader cultural
context) and 2) to find the folk etymology behind certain concepts (which
often has an even greater explanatory value). The fact that folk etymology
is *unscientific* in the modern sense of the word, does not make it

Best regards,

Lars Martin Fosse

Dr. art. Lars Martin Fosse
Haugerudveien 76, Leil. 114,
N-0674 OSLO Norway

Tel: +47 22 32 12 19
Fax: +47 22 32 12 19

E-mail: L.M.Fosse at

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