By Chris Doty PHD
If you’ve read anything about heathenry, up to and including Culture of the Teutons, you’ve undoubtedly come across a writer talking about language. Whether it’s modern Icelandic, Old Norse, Old English, or something even more obscure (anyone know any Old Frisian?), the languages of our ancestors and our current coreligionists often crop up in discussions about topics as diverse as community and death. There are even whole volumes, like Eric Wódening’s We Are Our Deeds, which rely very heavily on linguistic evidence to make their claims.
Unfortunately, many of the arguments in heathendom that rely on language are based on common misconceptions about how language works. In this post—what I hope will be the first in a series for Heathen Talk—I’m going to address what is probably the most widespread problem that I see in linguistic arguments in heathenry: something called the etymological fallacy.
Even outside of heathenry, this is one of the most widespread misapplications of historical linguistics. It’s so common, in fact, that it has its own fancy name. Simply stated, the etymological fallacy is an argument about the meaning of a word based on what it meant in the past, rather than on what it means now.
In heathenry, this use is often extended to say that, because a word meant a particular thing at some point in the past, it tells us something about how our ancestors thought. In action, the etymological fallacy often looks something like this:
In review, the derivation of right from Proto-Indo-European *reg-1 [“]to move in a straight line” appears to indicate that the morality, law, or customs of the folk was viewed as a “straight line” which the individual moved along. (We Are Our Deeds, pg. 48)
At first glance, it might seem like a reasonable assumption that words carry with them a certain sense of their meaning as they travel through time. But there’s a problem: languages change, and more quickly than you might think. Pronunciation changes, meaning changes, the structure of sentences changes—everything in language is constantly in flux. The etymological fallacy implies that there’s some sort of ur-essence of meaning in a word, a kind of linguistic homeopathy that tinges the thoughts and minds of speakers far into the future.
If you’re a native English speaker, I can provide you concrete examples that let you test whether or not you have access to the ur-essence of Old English words. Let’s try it!
Consider the English word pretty (in Old English, spelled prættig). You know what it means today, but can you guess what it meant to those who spoke the language of Beowulf around a thousand years ago? Do you have any sense of other meanings related to the word? Well, if you said “tricky, crafty, sly, cunning, wily, astute”, you’re right—but I bet you had no idea. How about knight? I’d guess it brings to mind ideas of chivalry and warfare, but it probably didn’t trigger any sense of “boy, youth, servant”, which is what Old English cniht meant. What about “nice”? Originally borrowed from French, it meant not “kind” or “pleasant” but “stupid, careless, clumsy, weak”. You can find whole lists of changes like these in intro to linguistics textbooks.
To understand how meanings change, and why this meaning change invalidates these types of arguments, it’s important to understand where meaning comes from. If you buy into the idea of etymological fallacy, you’re asserting that words have some sort of inherent meaning that travels with them through the ages, what I referred to above as linguistic homeopathy. But this isn’t how language works.
The meaning of a word arises from a shared agreement among people who speak a language. If you’re an English speaker*, the sequence of sounds “d-o-g” refers to a specific species of domesticated four-legged mammal because English speakers agree that it does. If you start calling individuals of this particular species “c-a-t” instead, other speakers of English will be happy to tell you that you’re wrong. Because the meaning of words is decided by community consensus, they can’t persist into the future any more than the individual sounds of a spoken word can. Once that original community is completely gone, so too is their consensus about what a word meant, and a new, albeit closely related consensus, takes its place. These subtle shifts in meaning from one generation to the next can completely change the meaning of a word in just a few hundred years, as we saw above.
Let’s look at a specific example of the etymological fallacy in action. Although I mentioned We Are Our Deeds above, and I’m using another example from that book here, Wódening is far from the only person to fall into the trap of the etymological fallacy in heathenry.
Also used for “custom” was Old English sidu (Icelandic seiðR) which meant “custom, practice, manner, habit, rite, manners, morality, good contact.” The word might derive from Proto-Indo-European *sed-1 “to sit,” which had derivatives meaning “to set (including our own word set).” Sidu us [sic] then “that which is set,” bringing to mind the Well of Wyrd into sidu is perhaps set as layers of action. (pg. 83)
Since we’ve talked about etymological fallacy, you should now be able to see why this kind of reasoning is problematic. We can’t rely on the consensus of bygone eras to help figure out how our heathen ancestors thought about the world.
There’s also an additional problem with examples like this one. Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is the proposed ancestral language of all the languages that today make up the Indo-European language family, which stretches from India to Northern Europe. Although we have no record of PIE, we can get some sense of what the language looked like by using comparative linguistic reconstruction, which also lets us make some guesses about when it was spoken and where. Based on this methodology, we think that PIE was spoken around 3500 BC. That’s a full 4,500 years before the Old English word “sidu” was in any kind of regular use.
The word “nice” completely changed meaning in just 700 years. Even if, hypothetically, it took a minimum of 700 years for a word to change meaning, 4,500 years is enough time for a word to go through 6 complete changes in meaning! There’s no way that the meaning of a word that far in the past had any influence on how our ancestors thought about or perceived the world.
Next time you see someone committing an etymological fallacy, I hope that you’ll tell them they’re doing it wrong—and also let them know why.
*Or, through one of my favorite linguistic coincidences, a speaker of Mbabaram, a language of Australia that also calls man’s best friend “dog”.
Chris Doty has a PhD in historical linguistics, and is a lecturer at Northeastern University. When he’s not knee-deep in language books, he runs a CrossFit gym and teaches English. Chris doesn’t tweet much but you can find him here https://twitter.com/csdoty