16 September 2017

Shifty Double Agents (revisited)

In this post, we take a second look at the curious, and curiously similar, double lives of the verbs to hew and to cleave.

Part One: How “K” can equal “H” 

In Hewing and Gluing (March 2012), I explored how cleave and hew both mean “to chop, split, cut,” etc. and, strangely, the very opposite of splitting: “sticking to” or “staying close to.” I concluded by noting how odd it was that these two very distinct verbs, which don't appear to be linguistically related, could both share that same, strange conceptual double duty. I posited that perhaps the two words were, in fact, not so distinct from each other after all. I wondered whether the similarity the two words share goes beyond the conceptual. Whether, in fact, the words themselves might be “physically” related — or, in other words, cognate.

Since those first musings, I’ve learned about “Grimm’s Law,” a consonant shift that occurred a couple thousand years ago, breaking what would become the Germanic branch of Indo-European (IE) off from the main stem and its resulting non-Germanic IE descendants.[1] According to this pattern of shifts, some IE consonants changed in the Germanic branch: IE “p” became Germanic “f”, “t” became “th”, “b” became “p”, “d” became “t”, and so on for roughly a baker’s dozen consonants. Including “k” shifting to “h”.

Linguists have noted “k”-to-“h”-shifted cognates between, say, Latin and its descendants on one hand, and proto-
Germanic and its descendants on the other. The following table illustrates some examples, by first presenting a reconstructed Proto Indo-European (PIE) root, then a Latin word derived from that root, a modern French word derived from the root, a modern German, “h”-shifted word derived from the same root, and a modern English one. 

Proto Indo-European root
(the * means the root is "reconstructed," not attested)
Latin word based on rootmod. French from Latin wordmod. German word from IE rootmod. English from Germanic word
*kwon- [dog]canischienhund     hound
*ker- [horn]cornu   cornehorn          horn    
*kerd- [heart]cor          coeurherz       heart
*kaput- [head] [2]caput     chef (and all the -chap- root words)haupthead

All this to say that if we pick apart the modern English verbs to cleave and to hew we can imagine that they are in fact cognate, with the “k” sounding word shifted to the “h” sound:



CL
EA
VE
H
E
W

That we have both a pre-shift derived word (cleave) and a shifted version (hew) might simply be due to when they entered the language. English being a voracious consumer of the rest of the world’s words, cleave might have been brought in from a different IE language sometime after the original word shifted to hew.

Part Two: Forehead slap

Now, to complicate things, we can consider something else. The title of my March 2012 post was “Hewing and Gluing,” making a sort of rhyming pun about of the dual concepts of splitting and sticking together. While thinking about the verb cleave in the new light of Grimm’s Law, I had a forehead-slap moment. I recognized that cleave almost 1000% is related to the modern German verb kleben – which means “to glue, affix.” 


CL
EA
VE
KL
E
B (-en)
H
E
W

Looking at this table, we can see that root of the German verb kleben (-kleb) might be seen as a bridge between cleave and hew.

Part Three: The mystery deepens, colloquially speaking

So we’ve seen that cleave and hew may in fact be structurally related. But there’s also possibly an idiomatic relationship between the English hew and German hauen. As noted in my very first post on these weird words, German hauen (chop) and English hew are cognate. Both have a chopping, cutting sense. If those two are cognate, then, if I’m right in my speculations above, hauen and German kleben are also cognate. Thinking about these words for this blog post, I recalled a colloquial German phrase: Hau ab! (infinitive abhauen), which means “get lost!” or “get out of here!” It suddenly struck me (cleaved me? hewed me?) that we have a colloquial English phrase to cut out, as it “he saw the look on her face and cut out of there without thinking twice.” We also have the colloquial to split as another way to indicate making a hasty departure from the scene. Stretching things just a bit further, we also have English to strike out for… as in “they struck out for Texas and we never saw them again.” The table showing relationships now looks even weirder:



CL
EA
VE
KL
E
B (-en)
H
E
W
H
AU
(-en)

Hew, cut, split, strike, abhauen -- What's going on here? What is it about this sense of cutting or hitting in both English and German that lends itself quick departures?

And still unanswered: What is this mysterious, dual conceptual relationship between striking, chopping, cutting, on one hand, and sticking, affixing, staying close to on the other? I’m no closer to a reasonable speculation on the answer to that one, but I imagine, in the next 5 years, I might come up with something!

Footnotes:

[1] Grimm's Law is also known as the First Germanic Sound Shift (and some other terms). I learned about it listening to Kevin Stroud’s excellent History of English Podcast (especially episodes 4 “A Grimm Brother Resurrects the Dead,” and 21 “ Early Germanic Words”). This shift, which scholars believe probably happened a little over 2000 years ago, distinguishes modern Germanic languages from Latin, Greek, and other, more modern IE languages (paraphrased from Elly van Gelderen, A History of the English Language. John Benjamins, 2006, cited here).   https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-grimms-law-1690827

[2] This last one, the *kaput- root, is a good one to try to get our heads around. Although the modern German word for “head” is “Kopf,” there’s another word, “Haupt.” This latter word today is the adjective “main,” but originally meant both the body part “head” and the figurative word “head” or “chief.” Consider the German word for “captain,” which is “Hauptmann.” On the face of it, the English word "head" might not seem related with Latin-derived "cap" or "chief" or "capital.” But due to the consonant shift formalized as Grimm’s Law, we can see how they actually are. Old English "head" was "heafod,” which looks, not coincidentally, like modern German "haupt,” which in turn is a shifted version of the Latin word “caput”.

No comments:

Post a Comment