Let us have a look at some examples of false etymologies and how orthography can distort the origin and the semantic relationship of words belonging to the same lexical family.
We are told that the word invocar (invoke) comes from the Latin etymon INVOCARE and means ‘asking for help or assistance’. This help is undoubtedly requested using one’s mouth, by naming or calling someone with one’s voice. The etymological origin should then relate boca (mouth) with bocado (bite), voz (voice) and vocablo (word). However, orthography distinguishes between words written with /b/ or with /v/
, thus obscuring the
possibility of a common etymon. Let us consider one more example. The word responsabilidad
(responsibility) derives from the verb responder (to
respond). Responsibility is the ability to give and assume an answer. Hábil
(skilful; is a word related to the English word ‘able’ – ‘to be able
to’), which is in turn related to haber (to have). We call
hábil the person who can easily tener (have) or obtener
(obtain), and so who has aptitud (aptitude), because
he is apto (able). Therefore, the etymological relationship
between respons-abilidad (respond and ability), and between aptitud
and obtener (aptitude and obtain) should be visible in their
Bearing these new concepts in mind, what languages share and what is transmitted from one to another would not so much be the phonetic evolution of a word but the idea, the meaning it conveys. Languages share a symbolism; therefore, what is important is not to determine if the lexemes of a language have stemmed and evolved phonetically from words of another language but to understand that they come from the same initial concept, the same meaning or symbol.
Here are some eloquent examples:
The word perdón (forgiveness) is made up of ‘para’ + ‘dar ’ (in Latin, PERDONARE = ‘per’ + ‘donare’). It is made up the same way in Spanish as it is in English, despite using different elements: forgive is the sum of ‘for’ + ‘give’. If we look for the word perdonar in an etymological dictionary, we are referred back to Latin and the general meaning is of “someone resigning voluntarily from punishing a fault, crime or offense”. And yet the literal meaning of the components has a much more profound sense than that of a voluntary resignation. The amazing thing is finding in two languages from different families the same idea that to forgive you must give. This happens more often than we might think.
Let us have a look at what kind of information contained in words may go beyond the apparent and official significance given in a dictionary. I will soon explain the reason for doing this.
The Spanish word abandonar (to abandon), according to the dictionary of Maria Moliner, comes from the French ‘abandonner’ and means “to leave aside something that one has the obligation to take care of or to attend to, moving or not away from it”. Since it is evident that it is part of the same family as banco (bank, bench), bancal (terrace), banda (band), bandeja (tray), bandera (flag, banner) or bando (group, bunch), we look for these words in the same etymological dictionary. Banco comes from the Germanic ‘bank’ and means seat. Bancal comes from the Arabic ‘manqála’ and means support. Banda comes from the Germanic ‘Band’ and means a tape, ribbon or strip made from flexible material. Bandeja comes from Portuguese and means a flat serving tray. Bando comes from the Gothic ‘bandwo’ which means a flag, and also a gathering of people or “group of people fighting against others or against opposing ideas”. With this contradictory information that refers us to different languages (Arabic, Germanic, Gothic, French, Portuguese), it is impossible to see that all these words are based on a common idea (or concept) of group or union. Thus, by analogy with banda (band, a group of yarns that forms a flexible tape), the concept of bando (band of people) is created, as well as that of a musical band, and their bandera (flag) is the cloth that represents them, while a set of assembled planks on which (unlike a chair) several people can sit, is a banco (bench). Let us return now to the word abandonar and address its original meaning: to leave out of a group or ‘band’. To understand this we do not need to know French, Arabic or Gothic. Just a little common sense...
As if there was a metalanguage, we find a hidden meaning within the formal meaning, like a sublanguage within the language, which would provide us with new information (at a second level), and which our subconscious recognizes and knows how to interpret. We are talking about a symbolic encrypted language that refers us directly to the idea, the concept, and uses a code we have forgotten at a conscious level. Everything seems to indicate that this meaning has been universal.
For many years I have wondered how this metalanguage works. The answer goes in the following direction: the brain makes no distinction between what it sees and what it imagines. The earliest words (lexemes) tended to describe what was seen. A word was equal to an idea; consider some of the first referents, e.g. body parts. In Catalan, the word costa (coast) has the same beginning as the word cos (body); costella (rib) and costat (side) are parts of this cos. Joining two pieces or bodies of something is cosir (to sew). To bring something towards us is acostar (to bring closer). In Spanish, brazos (arms) are used to abrazar (to embrace). Manos (hands) are used to amasar (to knead). Pies (feet) are used to pedalear (to pedal). Falling on one’s rodillas (knees) is arrodillarse (to kneel). A dedal (thimble) is worn on the dedo (finger). And the collar (necklace), on the cuello (neck). A large bota (wineskin) is called barril (barrel) because it is like a large barriga (belly). We use our cabeza (head) for a cabezazo (header; masculine noun, voluntary movement) or for a cabezada (nap; feminine noun, involuntary movement), and someone stubborn is called cabezón (headstrong).
Who created words? Did they really arise by chance? And were they assigned indiscriminately, based on conventions? How are we supposed to have moved from the onomatopoeic grunt to the metaphor? And more importantly: is this linguistic capacity being used properly, or is it being intentionally manipulated?
ROMANCE DID NOT BEGIN IN ROME
A critique of the Latin origin of Romance languages
Fragment from CHAPTER 5, 5.1 Lexicology 5.2 Etymology 5.3 Toponymy