A bit of speculative etymology demonstrating language as phenotype: it all starts at birth.
I am pre-publishing this sequence of essays here and in social media to elicit comments and other feedback. They will form the framework for my next book, Darwin, Dada, Dalí, Duke, & Devadevàya.
We have looked at how language evolution is similar to biological evolution, and how it follows some of the same rules; and from that, I suggested that language evolution is an archeological record of our intellectual evolution. In this post, I am (perhaps incautiously) going further out on that limb, to look at how our ideas appear to ‘jump the fences’ from one language to an unrelated language, in ways that would seem to violate the patterns of both traditional genetics and traditional linguistics. I propose that this, perhaps, reflects language as a phenotype, i.e., language may be the outward expression (‘phenotype’) of our inward thinking (‘genotype’).
Serious linguists often dismiss what I am attempting here as ‘speculative etymology,’ which has two characteristics: word analysis limited to a comparison of meanings alone; and a failure to examine the problem beyond one language.Dirk Geeraerts, “Lexical semantics from speculative etymology to structuralist semantics,” in The Oxford Handbook of the History of Linguistics, Keith Allan, ed. OUP, 2013, p556. Given that definition, however, I suppose I am only committing a half-speculative etymology: not only will I examine the problem across several related languages, my proposal requires that we examine the situation across several unrelated language families.
Genetic Lineage of Language
We previously looked at the ‘genetic lineage’ of languages by looking at, ironically enough, the word ‘genetic’ itself, and the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root *gen- from which it is derived. As we discussed in the post, that root has spawned many words, not all of which are obvious descendants.
It is even more interesting than that, however. Another similar-sounding, but apparently unrelated word is ‘genuflect’, from the PIE root *genu- which refers to to a bend or an angle. Other words that have descended from that root include hexagon, diagonal, trigonometry, and knee.
Which brings up the word ‘genuine.’ The root of that one is unclear, and it could be related to *gen- as in ‘native born’; or it could be related to *genu- from the Roman tradition of a father recognizing a baby as his own ‘progeny’ (*gen-) by placing the child on his ‘knee’ (*genu-).
In Greek, the words for ‘birth’ and ‘angle’ reflect the same relationship, both of them sharing the core letter triplet –gon-. Related to ‘birth,’ there is góni, γόνη, ‘gonad.’ But for ‘angle’ Greek has gonía, γωνία, which is also related to gónato, γόνατο, knee.
The same pattern is seen in Russian, which is also a PIE derivative. ‘Generation’ is pokoleniye, поколение, and ‘knee’ is similar: koleno, колено. But in this case, it becomes puzzling; the Russian koleno is related to a different Greek word, kólon, κῶλον, which refers to parts of the body.This does not appear to be related to the English word for the large intestine, ‘colon.’ It is strange that the Russian appears to derive from the Greek kólon instead of gónato. And yet, the same pairing persists. What seems to be happening is that the relationship between two concepts has been faithfully preserved, independent of the attested etymologies.
So despite deviating from the expected etymological patterns, we still end up with a similarity between a word referring to ‘birth,’ and one referring to ‘angle.’
It is even more curious. This same linguistic pairing appears outside of the PIE languages, where we would not expect similarities. It appears in some of the Uralic languages (i.e., Finnic, Hungarian, Saami et al.) For instance, in Finnish, polvi is ‘knee,’ while the related sukupolvi is ‘generation,’ and polveutua indicates genealogical descent.
And then the same duplex appears in yet another unrelated language. In fact, in this case it appears in a language isolate, a language that does not appear to be related to any other language, anywhere. In Basque, belaun is ‘knee’, and belaunaldi is ‘generation.’ Again, we see that the concept of ‘knee’ is somehow related to ‘offspring.’
All Roads Lead to Rome
It is possible, of course, that the Roman tradition of a father claiming a child by putting him/her on his knee influenced these parallels, or perhaps it was simply a common behavior across the cultures of Europe. The Basque country was certainly under Roman rule for some centuries. On the other hand, the Romans did not conquer Russia. And they did not conquer the Nordic countries, because the Varian Disaster at Teutoburg Forest stopped Roman expansion. However, it is fascinating that the southern geographical boundaries of the Uralic languages come quite close to the northern reaches of Roman conquest. Likewise, the western limits of the East Slavic and West Slavic languages approximate the eastern extremes of the Roman Empire. On the other hand, the Romans did rule lands where South Slavic—Serbo-Croatian, Slovene, Bulgarian, & Macedonian—was spoken, as part of their conquest of the Balkan Peninsula and nearby states.
It is a fascinating problem. If there are linguists out there who have some explanation for these parallels, please comment below, or contact me. In the meantime, let me offer a conjecture supporting my thesis of language as ‘phenotype,’ to the ‘genotype’ of our ideas. Perhaps these linguistic parallels reflect, not the lineage of languages, but the lineage of our ideas and our thinking.
I propose an explanation by using a third, unrelated word, ‘pedigree.’ That word is descended from—evolved from—the French phrase pied de gru, or ‘crane’s foot.’ First, look at the genealogical diagram at the top of this post, of the semi-legendary King Lear and his daughters as diagrammed in the 15th c. Canterbury Roll. Before continuing, we should note the name of his third daughter, ‘Gonoril’, a variation of ‘Gonarilla’ (admittedly a rather unattractive name). Gonoril appears to be another descendant of *gene-, ‘birth’, possibly related to ‘Genevieve’ (‘woman born of the clan’) or ‘Eugenia’ (‘well-born’).
As to the pedigree, look at the famous diagram at right from Darwin’s notes, where he is first trying to understand biological relationships. This is a genealogical or family ‘tree.’ We can easily see why we it is called a tree, and why we often use the terms ‘branch’ and ‘fork’ to describe the descendants of a lineage.
And we can also begin to understand the reference to a crane’s foot. Today we represent family relationships/pedigrees with vertical and horizontal lines, because that representation was easier to print with moveable type. But previously, relationships were shown with forking lines, as with the two diagrams, Darwin’s and Lear’s, which resemble the claws of a bird.
From Darwin’s diagram and King Lear’s family tree it does not take much imagination to consider that preliterate cultures probably explained tribal relationships with exactly this sort of diagram: an elder might sketch in the dirt, indicating parents at the top, with angles stemming off of them for the children. Given the importance of family relationships in most ancient culture, this sort of diagram might have been humanity’s earliest attempts at using symbols to represent abstract information. And it would give us a possible connection between *gene– ‘birth’, and *genu-, ‘angle.’
I should note, however, that I used a translation web app to search for similar patterns in Chinese, Arabic, Korean, and Turkish. In none of them does this pairing seem to appear, which argues against my thesis. However, if a language outside of Europe exhibited a similar pairing, that would be very interesting.
These sorts of speculative etymologies draw the ire of etymologists. But I’m not an etymologist (nor an historian). But it’s moot, there would seem to be no way to prove my conjecture here either way. But even if this speculative etymology is completely wrong, the central thesis still has merit. The word ‘pedigree’ still demonstrates language as phenotype, and the ways in which the evolution of our words reflects the evolution of our thinking.
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More information about the diagram of King Lear and his daughters from the Canterbury Roll is available at the University of Canterbury, New Zealand.
Darwin’s evolutionary tree courtesy of Wikimedia.