To Poseidon (Homeric Hymn XXII)

Ἀμφὶ Ποσειδάωνα, μέγαν θεόν, ἄρχομ᾽ ἀείδειν,
γαίης κινητῆρα καὶ ἀτρυγέτοιο θαλάσσης,
πόντιον, ὅσθ᾽ Ἑλικῶνα καὶ εὐρείας ἔχει Αἰγάς.
διχθά τοι, Ἐννοσίγαιε, θεοὶ τιμὴν ἐδάσαντο,
ἵππων τε δμητῆρ᾽ ἔμεναι σωτῆρά τε νηῶν. 5
χαῖρε, Ποσείδαον γαιήοχε, κυανοχαῖτα,
καί, μάκαρ, εὐμενὲς ἦτορ ἔχων πλώουσιν ἄρηγε.

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Wormwood and vermouth are the same word

Many people are aware of the link between wormwood and absinthe. As names for the plant Artemisia absinthium, they are synonyms. A. absinthium has been used for many centuries to add a bitter flavor to various concoctions, especially wines and liqueurs. It has even taken the place of hops in some beer recipes.
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Eleventy-one

When as a naive 8th-grader I first trudged my long and arduous way through J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, I understood “eleventy-one” (111) to be a charming neologism on the part of the author—meant to be a quirk either of Bilbo Baggins’ speech or of Hobbit-language as a whole.

In fact, this usage is a borrowing from Old English, where the -ty suffix (formerly -tig, as it still appears in Dutch) can be appended to any number all the way up to 12:

  • tīen – 10
  • twēntig – 20
  • þrītig – 30
  • fēowertig – 40
  • fīftig – 50
  • sixtig – 60
  • (hund)seofontig – 70
  • (hund)eahtatig – 80
  • (hund)nigontig – 90
  • (hund)tēontig (lit. ‘tenty’) – 100
  • (hund)endlefontig (lit. ‘eleventy’) – 110
  • (hund)twelftig (lit. ‘twelvety’) – 120

For multiples of 10 between 70 and 120, the prefix hund- lit. ‘hundred’ could be added for emphasis; but keep in mind that this prefix does not in this case mean ‘hundred.’ It only signifies a large number:

Se sumor hafaþ hundnygontig daga … Se winter hæfaþ tū and hundnigontig daga.

The summer has 90 days … The winter has 2-and-90 days. (Shrine 83.33; 146.7)

The old Germanic counting system was essentially a syncretism of base-10 and base-12 features, and had several “big” numbers that could be counted to:

  • 10 × 10 = 100 (one [short] hundred)
  • 10 × 12 = 120 (long hundred; short gross)
  • 12 × 12 = 144 (one gross)

The significance of 12 as a counting base in Germanic parallel to base-10 is also manifested in the fact that the words for 11, 12 are formed differently from 13–19:

  • eleven < *ain-lib- lit. ‘one left (after a full count of 10)’
  • twelve < *twai-lib- lit. ‘two left (after a full count of 10)’
  • thirteen, etc. < *þrī-tehun- lit. ‘three (and) 10’

A base-20 system also had currency around ancient Europe, which was primarily associated with the Celtic peoples. It accounts for many of the idiosyncrasies of the modern Gaelic (Irish and Scottish), Welsh, and French (via Gaulish) counting systems. But that will be the subject of a future post!

(Featured image by Joe Gilronan)

An ominous sneeze (Od. 17.534–547)

People of all walks of life in Ancient Greek civilization(s) were fond of predicting the future by any means necessary. Sometimes this was a structured, purposeful process where a knowledgeable seer would set up an experiment, as it were, and use animal entrails or the flights of birds or random lines of literature.

But sometimes an omen inserts itself into everyday life and you have no choice but to remark on it. In Book 17 of the Odyssey, when the eponymous wanderer has returned to Ithaca but been disguised by Athena as an old man (called “the stranger” ξεῖνος—ironic, as his connection to Ithaca is more profound than anybody else’s), his wife Penelope is ranting about all the terrible things she wishes would happen to the many men (μνηστῆρες ‘suitors’) who are trying to woo her in her husband’s seemingly interminable absence.

“οἱ δ᾽ εἰς ἡμέτερον πωλεύμενοι ἤματα πάντα,
βοῦς ἱερεύοντες καὶ ὄϊς καὶ πίονας αἶγας, 535
εἰλαπινάζουσιν πίνουσί τε αἴθοπα οἶνον,
μαψιδίως· τὰ δὲ πολλὰ κατάνεται. οὐ γὰρ ἔπ᾽ ἀνήρ,
οἷος Ὀδυσσεὺς ἔσκεν, ἀρὴν ἀπὸ οἴκου ἀμῦναι.
εἰ δ᾽ Ὀδυσεὺς ἔλθοι καὶ ἵκοιτ᾽ ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν,
αἶψά κε σὺν ᾧ παιδὶ βίας ἀποτίσεται ἀνδρῶν.” 540

Right in the middle of her raving, her son Telemachus lets out a powerful sneeze.

ὣς φάτο, Τηλέμαχος δὲ μέγ᾽ ἔπταρεν, ἀμφὶ δὲ δῶμα
σμερδαλέον κονάβησε· γέλασσε δὲ Πηνελόπεια,
αἶψα δ᾽ ἄρ᾽ Εὔμαιον ἔπεα πτερόεντα προσηύδα·

Penelope sees the aptly timed sneeze as a prophetic confirmation that what she has been saying will come to pass. She asks Eumaeus— the faithful swineherd of the estate—to finally bring the elderly stranger into her presence.

“ἔρχεό μοι, τὸν ξεῖνον ἐναντίον ὧδε κάλεσσον.
οὐχ ὁράᾳς ὅ μοι υἱὸς ἐπέπταρε πᾶσιν ἔπεσσι; 545
τῷ κε καὶ οὐκ ἀτελὴς θάνατος μνηστῆρσι γένοιτο
πᾶσι μάλ᾽, οὐδέ κέ τις θάνατον καὶ κῆρας ἀλύξει.” (Od. 17.534–547)

534   ἡμέτερον sc. οἶκον ‘home’ from a few lines earlier—πωλεύμενοι = πωλεόμενοι ‘coming and going; visiting frequently’

535   ἱερεύοντες ἱερεύω ‘sacrifice’; cf. ἱερεύς ‘priest’—βοῦς … καὶ ὄϊς καὶ πίονας αἶγας ‘bulls … and sheep and fat goats’ exemplifies what is in comparative poetics called an augmented triad, where in a list of three items only the last has an attributive adjective or otherwise resists syntactic parallelism with the first two.

536   εἰλαπινάζουσιν εἰλαπινάζω ‘revel in large company, party’; cf. εἰλαπίνη ‘feast, banquet’—αἴθοπα αἶθ-οψ lit. ‘fiery-looking,’ a common epithet for wine; cf. αἴθω ‘burn, ignite’ (PIE *h2eydh-); note the hiatus τε αἴθοπα, which is sometimes allowed between the fourth and fifth feet, the so-called Bucolic dieresis.

537   μαψιδίως ‘recklessly, thoughtlessly’—κατάνεται κατ-άνομαι ‘be used up, wasted’—οὐ γὰρ ἔπ’ ἀνήρ: ἔπι here is adverbial (note the accentuation), with the semantics of ἔπ-ειμι ‘be left, remain’; thus = ‘for there [is] no man left’

538   ἀρήν ἀρή acc sg ‘ruin, destruction’—ἀμῦναι ἀμύνω aor act inf: to be taken with l. 537 ἀνήρ ‘a man to ward off’ i.e. ‘a man who can/will ward off

539   βίας βίη acc pl ‘act of violence’—ἀποτίσεται ἀπο-τίνομαι ‘exact payment for, avenge’

541   ἔπταρεν πταίρω 3 sg aor ‘sneeze’; a hapax legomenon in Homer (not counting l. 545 ἐπέπταρε); the word, beginning with πτ-, is an obvious onomatopoeia (cf. English ptui, imitative of spitting)

542   σμερδαλέον σμερδαλέος ‘fearful, terrible’; here as an adverb qualifying ἔπταρεν—κονάβησε κοναβέω ‘resound, echo’—γέλασσε γελάω ‘laugh’ 3 sg aor

543   πτερόεντα πτερό-εις ‘winged,’ lit. ‘feather-having’; ἔπεα πτερόεντα προσηύδα ‘spoke winged words to’ is a very frequent collocation in Homer; note also the phonetic similarity between l. 541 ἔπταρεν ‘sneezed’ and πτερόεντα (where respective ἔπταρ– and -[ἔπε]α πτερ– even occupy the same position in the verse)—προσηύδα προσ-αυδάω ‘speak to, address’

544   μοι is the ethical dative, signifying basically “Please do this for me.”—τὸν ξεῖνον = Odysseus, disguised as an old beggar—ἐναντίον ἐν-αντίος ‘opposite’ i.e. ‘into [my] presence’—ὧδε ‘thus, in this way,’ but here = ‘in this direction, hither’—κάλεσσον καλέω 2 sg aor imp

545   ὁράᾳς ὁράω 2 sg pres act ind with assimilation of ε in ὁράεις to the preceding vowel— = ὅτι conj ‘that’—μοι dative of possession with υἱός—ἐπέπταρε ἐπι-πταίρω ‘sneeze at’; cf. l. 541 ἔπταρεν

546   τῷ ‘therefore, for that reason’—ἀτελἠς ‘without completion, unaccomplished’; thus οὐκ ἀτελής = ‘completed, fulfilled’—μνηστῆρσι μνηστήρ ‘suitor, wooer’; cf. μνάομαι ‘woo, court’

547   This line basically rephrases the preceding line.—θάνατον καὶ κῆρας lit. ‘Death and the Kēres (spirits of violent death)’ = ‘death’; a frequent hendiadys in Homer—ἀλύξει ἀλύσκω 3 sg fut ind ‘avoid, escape’

“They—coming and going in our home all of the days,
sacrificing bulls and sheep and fat goats— 535
revel and drink the flashing wine,
thoughtlessly; and everything is used up. For there is no man left,
the likes of how Odysseus was, to ward off ruin from the house.
If Odysseus came and arrived at his homeland,
he’d at once, with his son, take vengeance on the mens’ violent acts.” 540

She spoke thus, and Telemachus sneezed greatly, and around the house
it resounded terribly; Penelope laughed,
and at once addressed winged words to Eumaeus:

“Go now, and call that stranger hither to my presence.
Don’t you see that my son has sneezed at all my words? 545
Therefore death to all the suitors will not go unfulfilled,
nor will any man escape Death and the Kēres.” (Od. 17.534–547)

Bagmē Blōma “Flower of the Trees”: Tolkien’s Gothic poem

J.R.R. Tolkien‘s adventures in language creation are well known and do not need elaboration here. But, in addition to his conlanging projects, he also composed an original 18-line poem in the Gothic language, the best-attested member of the extinct East Germanic language family. The bulk of the Gothic corpus is the Codex Argenteus, which contains portions of the Gospels translated by the bishop Wulfila (c. 311–383).

Bagmē Blōma, “Flower of the Trees,” is an ode in three stanzas to the birch tree, and features both rhyme and alliteration (the latter being a crucial feature of old Germanic poetry). The poem reflects Tolkien’s own sense of aesthetics—fans of his work may detect prosodic similarities to his Elvish poetry—and is not intended to reflect how the Gothic poetry of Wulfila’s time would have been structured.

Since the historical Gothic corpus is so limited, Tolkien took it upon himself to reconstruct more Gothic words that likely existed, using a knowledge of historical linguistics and lexical items from Proto-Germanic that had been reconstructed based on Old English, Old High German, and Old Norse. An example from below is brūnáim, the dative plural of non-existent *brūns; this is a nod towards Proto-Germanic *brūnaz ‘brown,’ which itself is securely reconstructed from English brown, German brown, Dutch bruin, etc. In my commentary, I indicate whether each word is a form of an attested Gothic word or a reconstruction on the part of the poet.

Here it is, with commentary and translation that is as literal as possible:

Bagmē Blōma

Brūnáim baíriþ baírka bōgum
láubans liubans liudandei,
gilwagrōni, glitmunjandei,
bagmē blōma, blauandei,
fagrafahsa, liþulinþi, 5
fráujinōndei faírguni.

Wōpjand windōs, wagjand lindōs,
lūtiþ limam láikandei;
slaíhta, raíhta, ƕeitarinda,
razda rōdeiþ reirandei, 10
bandwa baírhta, rūna gōda,
þiuda meina þiuþjandei.

Andanahti milhmam neipiþ,
liuhteiþ liuhmam laúhmuni;
láubos liubái fliugand láusái, 15
tulgus, triggwa, standandei.
Baírka baza beidiþ bláika
fráujinōndei faírguni.

1   brūnáim *brūnaz dat pl ‘brown’—baíriþ V baíran; the object is l. 2 láubans liubansbaírka *berkō ‘birch’—bōgum *bōguz ‘bough’

2   liubans adj liufs masc acc pl ‘dear, lovely’ (German lieb, archaic modern English lief)—liudandei II liudan fem nom pres part ‘growing, springing up’; agrees with l. 1 baírka

3   gilwa|grōni fem jō nom sg; a composition of *gelwaz ‘yellow’ and *grōnijaz ‘green’; the sense is adverbial—glitmunjandei fem nom pres part 1 glitmunjan ‘gleaming’; the abundance of Germanic gl– words in the semantic domain ‘shine’ is not a coincidence; they (along with gold, yellow, etc.) all come from the zero-grade of PIE *ģʰ(e)lh3– (cf. also Greek χλωρός ‘pale green’; Polish złoty ‘golden’)

4   bagmē gen pl bagms ‘trees’; cf. German Baum, English beamblōma ō ‘flower, bloom’; cf. German Blume, Dutch bloem; here evidently used with bagmē as a kenning for the birch itself (for the extension of ‘flower of’ to ‘best of, exemplar of,’ cf. anthology, lit. ‘a selection (λέγω) of flowers (ἄνθος)’)—blauandei VII *blēaną fem nom pres part ‘blowing’

5   fagrafahsa fem ō nom sg; a bahuvrihi composition of fagrs ‘fair’ and *fahsą ‘hair’; the referent is l. 4 blōmaliþu|linþi liþus ‘limb (cf. Dutch lid, German Glied)’ + *linþijaz (cf. lithe, German lind)

6   fráujinōndei fem nom pres part 2 fráujinōn ‘ruling; (substantivized) ruler, lady’—faírguni neut ja faírguni acc sg; take as the object of fráujinōndei

7   wōpjand VII wōpjan 3 pl ‘call, cry out’—wagjand 1 wagjan 3 pl ‘(cause to) move, shake’—lindōs fem ō *lindō acc pl ‘lime trees, linden trees’; cf. German Linde

8   lūtiþ II *lūtaną 3 sg ‘stoops, bends low’; cf. lout, OE lūtanlimam *limuz dat pl ‘limbs, branches’; historically a u-stem noun, but here with an a-stem ending—láikandei fem nom pres part VII láikan ‘jumping, dancing, playing’; cf. Old English lācan ‘swing, wave’

9   slaíhta ō ‘smooth’—raíhta ‘straight’ (cf. [up]right)—ƕeita|rinda fem ō nom sg; a bahuvrihi composition of ƕeits ‘white’ and *rindō ‘bark, crust’

10   razda fem ō acc sg ‘language, speech’; OE reord, OHG rartarōdeiþ 1 rōdjan 3 sg ‘speaks’—reirandei fem nom sg pres part 3 reiran ‘trembling’

11   bandwa fem ō ‘sign, token’—baírhta ‘bright’—rūna fem ō ‘secret, mystery’; cf. rune

12   þiuda fem ō acc sg ‘people, folk’ < cf. archaic modern English thede, German Deut[sch], Old Irish túath < PIE *tewtéh2; with meina, the object of þiuþjandeiþiuþjandei fem nom sg pres part 1 þiuþjan ‘doing good to, blessing’

13   anda|nahti neut ja ‘evening’ = ‘before (PIE *h2entí, cf. Greek ἀντί) night (*nahwt-)—milhmam masc n milhma dat pl ‘clouds’—neipiþ 1 *nīpaną; cf. OE nīpan (eg. genāp under nihthelm “it darkened under night’s helm,” The Wanderer l. 96a)

14   liuhteiþ 1 *leuhtijaną 3 sg ‘illuminates, lights up’; cf. German leuchtenliuhmam masc n *leuhman- dat pl ‘lights’; is this an adverbial usage of the dative plural (cf. OE wundrum ‘wonderfully’) = ‘brightly’?—laúhmuni neut ja ‘lightning’

15   fliugand II *fleuganą 3 pl ‘fly, glide’

16   tulgus u ‘steadfast’—triggwa fem ō ‘covenant’; the word is a noun built on triggws ‘trustworthy’ (cf. true, trust); but the word is a deliberate pun here, as the Old English cognate trēow can mean both ‘truth, faith’ and ‘tree’

17   baza ō *bazaz ‘bare’—bláika ō *blaikaz ‘bright, shining’

The Flower of the Trees

On brown boughs bears the birch
lovely leaves, growing them,
yellow-green, gleaming,
the flower of the trees, blowing,
fair-faxed, limb-lithe, 5
mistress of the mountain.

The winds wail, they stir the limes;
playing, she bends down with her limbs;
smooth, straight, white-barked,
she speaks a language, trembling, 10
a bright sign, a good mystery,
she blesses my people.

The evening darkens with clouds,
lightning illuminates brightly;
Lovely leaves fly loose, 15
steadfast, a covenant, standing.
The bare shining birch waits,
mistress of the mountain.

Some Old High German vocabulary for ‘intoxication’

There is an 8th-century Latin-German glossary (named Abrogans after its initial entry) that presents a large number of Latin words along with their Old High German meanings. The vocabulary is largely religious and/or biblical, but there are such occasional flights of whimsy as the following:

cit · Inprinnit · Crapula ·
ummazzi · Ebrietaſ · upar
trunkhani · Nauſia ·
uuillidho · poſt potum ·
aft̃ drankhe · Crapu
latuſ · uparhlatan ·
Subituſ · kahun · (Cod. Sang. 911; p. 67)

Here are the correspondences, in Latin and a standardized form of Old High German:

crapula ‘drunkenness’—un-māzī, lit. ‘immoderation’ (fem. īn-stem); cf. messen ‘measure,’ das Maß ‘measurement’

ebrietas ‘inebriation’—ubar-trunkanī lit. ‘over-drunkenness’ (fem. īn-stem)

post potum ‘after drinking’—aftar dranke

crapulatus ‘drunk’—ubar-hlatan, lit. ‘overladen’ = ‘overloaded’ (VI (h)ladan past ppl); cf. laden ‘load’

Hemp and cannabis are the same word

Our word cannabis—as in the scientific names for Cannabis sativa or Cannabis indica—comes ultimately from Greek ἡ κάνναβις (or, depending on whom you read, ἡ κανναβίς with different accentuation). Herodotus mentions the plant—

ἔστι δέ σφι κάνναβις φυομένη ἐν τῇ χώρῃ πλὴν παχύτητος καὶ μεγάθεος τῷ λίνῳ ἐμφερεστάτη.

[The Scythians] have kánnabis growing in the country, very much like flax except for its thickness and height. (Histories 4.74)

—although the word itself is not of Greek origin, but from some Indo-Iranian language (perhaps even Scythian; cf. Ossetian гӕн and Kurdish kinif). A yet more ancient origin may have been Akkadian qunnabu ‘hemp’ (which takes the determinative ŠIM, for plants and seeds).

The Indo-Iranian language of origin also loaned the word into that dialect-group of Indo-European that was to become Germanic. As a result, the word cannabis—or *kánabis, as it must have sounded when it was borrowed into pre-Germanic—is an outstanding illustration of Grimm’s law:

*kánabis (pre-Germanic)
*χánabis (voiceless stops become fricatives)
*χánapis (voiced stops become voiceless stops)
*hanapiz (Proto-Germanic after Verner’s law)

We can surmise from attested forms that Germanic *hanapiz must have had a competing form *hanipiz. From the former we get Old Icelandic hampr, Old High German hanaf (and German Hanf), Old Saxon hanap, Middle Dutch hannep, Old English hænep.

Ðeos wyrt þe man cannaue silfatica and oþrum naman hænep nemneþ.

This root, which is called cannabis sylvatica and, by another name, ‘hemp.’ (Lch. i.228)

From *hanipiz, we have Middle Dutch hennep (whence Dutch hennep), and Old English henep, whose descendant is modern English hemp.