thompson at thompson at
Mon May 20 02:14:55 UTC 1996

A while ago the subject of punning came up in the Indo-European list.
Perhaps the following note will be relevant to the present thread:

"Perhaps you are familiar with two reasonably accessible books, both
published by Blackwell: 1. Walter Redfern's 'Puns' [1984] and 2. 'On Puns:
the Foundation of Letters,' a collection of essays edited by Jonathan
Culler [1988]. In the latter is an essay by Frederick Ahl on the pun in
classical antiquity [with a good bibliography].
Indo-European studies has been re-invigorated by the discovery of
Saussure's notebooks on anagrams [published by Starobinski], in which
Saussure sees the phenomenon in numerous IE traditions of antiquity.
Interesting work on IE poetics has resulted [cf. especially Calvert
Watkins' new book]. I am a Vedicist. In Vedic this phenomenon [punning] has
been perceived, until recently, to be a matter of 'folk etymology.' But it
is very difficult, given our distance from our sources, to tell the
difference between pun and etymology. In any case, there is a great deal of
effort in early Vedic texts to motivate certain semantic associations [call
them 'ideas'] by means of what are essentially puns. Perhaps it is relevant
to your concerns to know that probably the most sophisticated linguistic
tradition on the planet prior to the birth of linguistics in 19th century
Europe [i.e., after the discovery of Sanskrit] is that of the Sanskrit
grammarians, who, in my view, can be traced back by intellectual and
spiritual lineage to the poets and proto-linguists of the Rigveda. Much
more, of course, could be said about puns and language development [e.g.,
in children]. Suffice it to say that, as a Sanskritist, I share with you
this interest in puns as an important linguistic phenomenon. Hoping that
this note is of use to you...."

In pre-technical proto-linguistic traditions [such as the Vedic], as Madhav
Deshpande has already shown us, there appears to be little interest in
historical or comparative linguistics [or etymology].  In fact, even the
Paninian tradition exhibits little interest in or awareness of historical
issues [though of course the tradition is quite sophisticated

To look at the issue of "folk etymology" from still another point of view:
like puns, these are often used to *motivate ideas*, to make phonic links
between concepts that have come together in the minds of a linguistic
community for other reasons entirely.  As such, these obviously "incorrect"
folk etymologies function like rhyme in a poem.  And, in fact, they are
frequently used as such, as poetic devices, throughout the RV, as
Elizarenkova's new book, "Language and Style of the Vedic RSis", has made
clear.  From one point of view, the Vedic RSis may appear to be naive
linguists.  From another, they appear to be very skillful poets.

Best wishes,
George Thompson

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