Love, pity and morphology

Finnish armas ‘dear’ has a somewhat interesting etymology: the word is considered to derive by borrowing followed by semantic amelioration from Germanic *armaz ‘pitiful’.

If we were given no other data, this argument would have to remain rather hypothetical. The shape of the word does suggest an Indo-European loan, but allowing major semantic drift as a free assumption is an easy excuse for finding Germanic or Baltic etc. loan etymologies for almost everything in the Finnish lexicon (and given some effort, I’m sure the method could be also stretched to prove that Finnish is actually, say, a highly divergent dialect of Chinese). Aluckily, according to the data reported in SSA [1], there are several additional pieces of evidence that point to a meaning ‘pitiful’ having existed in Proto-Finnic as well.

  • A “dialectal” meaning ‘pity’ is attested for the Estonian cognate (equivalent? [2]) armas.
  • The derivative *armas-ta- (> Fi. armastaa) has pity-related meanings somewhat more widely, in Karelian, Estonian and Livonian.
  • Finally, an exclusively pity-related parallel derivative from the same root appears to exist: armahtaa ‘to pardon, have mercy on’ — though attested slightly less widely: this appears in most northern Finnic varieties other than Veps, but in southern Finnic in only Votic, and it’s possible though not strictly required to consider it an Ingrian loanword in there.

The last one of these I actually find more interesting yet, though for a different reason. Namely, why does -h- appear here? It is true that the stem of armas in inflected forms is *armaha-, as in the genitive singular *armahan > Fi. armaan (~ armhan in Veps or Kven); but a stem vowel *a is not normally lost before the verbalizer *-ta-, and no consonant stem **armah- exists for this declension class.

One explanation might be haplology. Lauri Hakulinen seems to implicitly suggest this solution in SKRK, [1] listing the word under verbs derived by the momentane suffix *-ahta-. I.e. ‘to suddendly pity’ = ‘to pardon’? After this we’d have to assume contraction of the somewhat awkward stem *armahahta- to the attested armahta-.

This approach however suffers from the problem that Finnish momentane verbs are productively derived only from verb stems, not from nominal stems. Hakulinen only reports five other verbs formed in this fashion. Two of them actully derive from original *-eh-stems and they might be simple *-ta-derivatives after all (repalehtaa, roikalehtaa [3]), and for other two, derivation from a verbal stem does not seem to be possible to rule out (riemahtaa ‘to rejoice suddendly, erupt in celebration’, tipahtaa ‘to drop suddendly’ [4]). This leaves vapahtaa ‘to redeem, liberate’ (← vapaa ‘free’) as the only clear parallel.

Now vapahtaa is of course semantically very close to armahtaa, and this seems like a good reason to suspect that they may have affected one another’s formation in some way. Comparative examination however suggests that it’s probably armahtaa that is the model, and vapahtaa the remodelled verb. As mentioned, the former has cognates in multiple Finnic varieties; meanwhile the latter is restricted to Finnish. The root *armas also seems to be a relatively old Germanic loan, being found everywhere across Finnic, while vapaa < *vapada is a more recent Slavic loan, absent from marginal varieties such as Veps and Ludian. [5] So we have no clear solution here for armahtaa.

I have a different hypothesis in the works, though, that seems to fit in here quite well.

An interesting gap of general Finnic morphophonology is that no words ending in *-ah can be reconstructed for Proto-Finnic, and to my knowledge no corresponding declension can be observed in the modern languages either. This contrasts with a large number of words of the *armas type, ending in *-as : *-aha-; and an equally large amount ending in *-eh : *-ehe- (directly attestable in Karelian: hameh ‘dress’, veneh ‘boat’, etc.) A couple examples of *-es : *-ehe- exist as well (Karel. kirves : kirvehe- ‘axe’), and one or two cases of *-oh (Karel. orih ‘stallion’). Frequently we can also find among these “sibilant-final” words [6] discrepancies between the Finnic languages in the stem type: e.g. Finnish helmi ‘pearl’, a bare *-e-stem, corresponds to an *-es-stem helmes in Estonian, and an *-äs-stem ēļmaz in Livonian.

This makes me suspect that at some point in Finnic prehistory, general morphological levelling may have taken place here; that at one point, stems with a nominative *-ah existed as well, but these were later all reassigned as either *-as-stems or as *-eh-stems.

This is structural speculation so far. But I think there is at least one good reason to suspect the former existence of a class of *-ah-stems: in old enough Germanic loanwords, *s/*z are quite regularly substituted by pre-Finnic *š > Late Proto-Finnic *h. In the case of *-eh-stems, we can indeed find some direct correspondences of this stem type with the Indo-European masculine nominative singular ending *-s (> Germanic *-z): e.g. the above-mentioned *hameh ‘dress’ from PGmc *hamaz, or *padeh ‘path’ (> Karel. pajeh : patehe-) from PGmc *paθaz. [7] But *-as-stems arrive on the scene seemingly quite early, sometimes even in parallel with an *š-substitution: Fi. keihäs ‘spear’, hidas ‘slow’, from PGmc *gaizaz, *sīθaz! This all would surely be easier understandable, if we assumed for early Finnic declension patterns such as *keišäš : *keišäšä-, *šitaš : *šitaša- > ? *keihäh : *keihähä-, *hidah : *hitaha-, later levelled to the directly reconstructible *keihäs : *keihähä-, *hidas : *hitaha-.

I do not yet have a clear enough grasp of the overall picture though to say if the levelling process might have been regular in its output anywhere in the Finnic area — or even, if this should be assumed to have been a pre-Proto-Finnic or a post-Proto-Finnic process. [8]

But armahtaa seems to regardless fit into the framework quite nicely: the word would turn out to be after all a simple *-ta-causative, only one based on a now-lost consonant (nominative) stem *armah! The semantics also fit this picture: as noted above, armahtaa is an exclusively pity-related verb, with no associations of love. Noting again the semantic trajectory of the basic root word — Germanic ‘pitiful’ → presumable earlier Proto-Finnic ‘pitiful; dear’ > later Proto-Finnic ‘dear; pitiful’ > modern Finnic ‘dear’ — this verb was thus probably formed at an earlier time than armastaa, perhaps before the development of the meaning ‘dear’ entirely.

[1] “SSA” and “SKRK”, two indispensible sources in the study of Finnish etymology and morphology, have now been added to my Bibliography page.
[2] I sometimes feel that a pair of words in closely related languages that have the exact same meaning and shape should perhaps be described in stronger terms than “being cognate”. Given that we are usually comfortable saying that a given word “exists”, as a single entity, in several distinct dialects — and that the language/dialect distinction is arbitrary — it might be useful in an etymological context to claim that e.g. English mouse and German Maus are not merely “related”, but in fact the exact same word, just spelled in two different ways. This issue comes up the most often in etymological dictionaries, where a traditional “every language has distinct words” approach will sometimes lead to heavy repetition: “Finnish armas is cognate to Ingrian armas, Karelian armas, Estonian armas, Votic armas…”
[3] Though neither of these is familiar enough to me that I could do a closer semantic assessment of this solution.
[4] These seem like they would likely be derived from riemuita ‘to rejoice’, tippua ‘to drop’ rather than the bare roots riemu ‘joy’, tippa ‘drop’.
[5] Of course, currently Veps and Ludian are anything but marginal when it comes to Slavic contacts; but the oldest Slavic loans in Finnic appear to predate late Proto-Slavic proper (this one as well: reflecting early PSl *svabadā rather than late PSl *svoboda), and they were probably adopted from the archaic Old Novgorod dialect, with a main contact area close to Ingria and the Pskov region.
[6] Recall that Finnic *h < *š.
[7] I do not recall offhand what is the standard explanation of the 2nd-syllable *e of these, though.
[8] This might even have a few repercussions for Finnic historical phonology, but I will refrain from going into the topic for now.

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Posted in Reconstruction
10 comments on “Love, pity and morphology
  1. crculver says:

    “but the oldest Slavic loans in Finnic appear to predate late Proto-Slavic proper”

    In fact, Proto-Slavic proper would be the stage early enough that it describes the Slavic loans in Finnic. Thomas Olander’s new book Proto-Slavic Inflectional Morphology: A Comparative Handbook defines Proto-Slavic strictly as the state of the language containing all innovations before the first innovation that fails to apply to the whole family. Using Old Novogorod evidence among others, the author has rounding of *a to o as a post-PS process, part of the concept “Common Slavic” that he feels is too fuzzy to be entirely valid. And due to the relative chronologies involved, another curious result of this approach is even the first palatalization of the velars postdates Proto-Slavic proper. I highly recommend this book, it’s fun and it’s remarkable how much progress has been made in the reconstruction of Slavic since a decade ago when I read all the introductions to the family then extant.

    “would easier understandable”

    Ouch. Your English could so consistently pass for native that it was jarring to suddenly meet that phrasing. My idiolect would accept “easier to understand” or “more easily understandable”, but not that. A cursory Google search reveals only a handful of hits, clearly by non-native speakers. English comparatives are such a mess that I’m grateful I never had to learn the language as a foreign one.

    • j. says:

      Ouch. Your English could so consistently pass for native that it was jarring to suddenly meet that phrasing.

      Looks like I missed something in editing: I originally had written “would be easier to understand”, but after switching to “understandable” I apparently didn’t remember to switch the comparison construction.

      (Related linguistic hypothesis: is it possible that L1 grammatical influence will shine thru easier ;) in situations like this? I have a recollection of finding mistakes like this relatively often in English writing that I have heavily edited, but not so much in first drafts.)

  2. David Marjanović says:

    The semantic development is not particularly remarkable; German arm is used in constructions like “aww, poor baby!” considerably more often than English poor.

    it might be useful in an etymological context to claim that e.g. English mouse and German Maus are not merely “related”, but in fact the exact same word, just spelled in two different ways.

    This example is a bit fuzzy because the diphthong developed separately (Great Vowel Shift in English, New High German Diphthongization in… most of German); most of Alemannic and (broadly speaking) Low German retain the ancestral [uː].

    even the first palatalization of the velars p[ost]dates Proto-Slavic proper

    Interesting. Could you summarize the evidence for this?

  3. David Marjanović says:

    Oh, I forgot that blockquotes are automatically italicized.


    • j. says:

      On this blog theme, anyway. That’s one argument in favor of toying around with themes again at some point, I guess.

  4. David Marjanović says:

    Never mind, the Google Books preview probably contains the explanation!

    • David Marjanović says:

      Nope. I only get to see the first 34 pages. :-(

      From p. 27, brackets in the original, numbers between them referring to sound changes in chronological order:

      “A candidate for the first non-shared innovation is the second palatalisation [23], which undoubtedly has partly different scopes and outcomes in the Slavic dialects. If the second palatalization is the first post-Proto-Slavic innovation, it follows that Proto-Slavic is the language stage immediately after the monophthongisation of diphthongs [22], which, in turn, followed the first palatalisation [21]. However, another candidate comes in as a possible and, I believe, more appropriate marker of the beginning of the post-Proto-Slavic period: the fronting of non-front vowels after palatal consonants [20].
          The fronting of non-front vowels [20] differs from the other changes relevant to the discussion of the dissolution of Proto-Slavic by apparently not being a single event in the history of Slavic, but rather a phonotactic rule that was valid for an extended period of time, during which other changes took place” – followed by references and examples showing that it was still a surface filter after [22] and [23].

      P. 28, still in the same paragraph:

      “Since at least the end of the process of vowel fronting belongs to the post-Proto-Slavic period (see also the external evidence adduced in Holzer 1998a: 61), it seems justified, at least from a practical perspective (see below), to operate with a Proto-Slavic system where the process had not started yet.”

      That’s it? An argument from convenience of presentation?

      The next paragraph presents further evidence for the sequence [20]-[21]-[22] and ends in: “Consequently, if we accept that vowel fronting was a post-Proto-Slavic process, the first palatalisation also belongs to post-Proto-Slavic (cf. the discussion in Vermeer 2014: 186–187).”

      Yeah, if.

      Bottom of p. 28 and top of 29:

      “It should be acknowledged that the Slavic evidence could also fit with a phonetically more advanced proto-language where the fronting of non-front vowels [20], the first palatalisation [21] and the monophthongisation of oral diphthongs [22] had already been carried out, if it is accepted that the fronting of non-front vowels applied again in post-Proto-Slavic, after the second palatalisation [23]. However, as it is simpler and, as far as I can see, it does not create problems to regard the fronting of non-front vowels as a post-Proto-Slavic change, I find it reasonable to use the term Proto-Slavic to refer to a relatively conservative stage in the development of Slavic.”

      Of course it creates a problem – with Ockham’s Razor. It is easier to assume that a change happened in one dialect than that it spread through every corner of a dialect continuum and ran to completion everywhere.

      The next paragraph promises discussion of the hypothesis that [22] “was in fact a post-Proto-Slavic change”, and of the hypothesis that the third palatalization happened before the sequence [20]-[22]-[23] ([21] isn’t mentioned). This reinstates my question, because those parts of the book are not included in the preview. :-(

      The paragraph after that says:

      “On a more practical level, regarding the fronting of non-front vowels as a post-Proto-Slavic process has the advantage that the o– and i̯o-stems have not yet split into distinct inflectional paradigms. At this stage the inflectional system is considerably simpler than after the fronting of non-front vowels.”

      Fair enough for a didactic work as the book aspires to be; but that doesn’t mean things really happened like that. Why not simply state “the system presented in this book is probably not exactly Proto-Slavic, but slightly older, which makes things a lot easier to explain”?

      • j. says:

        On the topic of dating monophthongization in Slavic, at least *au > *ō > у is demonstrably later than first contacts with Finnic; *ei > *ē > и perhaps as well. Three interesting examples from Kallio (2006), On the Earliest Slavic Loanwords in Finnic:

        • Finnic *Laugas (: *Laukaha-) → Slavic *Laugā > *Lōgā ‘river Luga’
        • Slavic *ščaukā → Finnic *šauki > *hauki ‘pike’
        • Slavic *Dvainā → Finnic *Väinäjoki ‘river Daugava’ (contrast Karelian Viena < *Veena 'northern Dvina')

        At least the second of these though (feeding Finnic *š > *h, which might be as early as 2nd to 3rd century CE, at least in the south) must be earlier than the general expansion of Slavic, and the other two are names of important rivers — so they might simply involve sporadic trade contacts with pre-Proto-Slavic speakers.

  5. M. says:

    Re: keihäs and hidas — as I understand it, the Proto-Germanic form of the first word would have been *gaizás (later gáizas), because the sound-change *s > *z (and other related lenitions) did not affect post-tonic consonants. I’m not sure if that affects your conclusions you draw.

    In the case of hidas, a Germanic etymology is plausible but not watertight, as far as I can see. The Germanic reflexes of *sīþuz (accented on the root) mean “late”, “later” or “since”, not “slow”. Although the -as ending of hidas does give reason to suspect IE origin (even though Germanic *sīþuz was an u-stem), the –as may simply have been added analogically during the time when various Germanic adjectives in *-az / -iz (autuas, armas, kaunis etc.) were entering Finnic: this explanation seems applicable to e.g. valpas and valmis, for which no IE origin has been proposed (to my knowledge). Also, according to my etymological dictionary, other Finnic cognates of this word (outside Finnish) have a different ending: Karelian hitaisa “slow” has what appears to be the same suffix seen in Finnish kuuluisa, tuhoisa etc.

    • M. says:

      “… because the sound-change *s > *z (and other related lenitions) did not affect post-tonic consonants.”

      Or rather, it didn’t affect consonants *immediately* following the stressed vowel; fricative consonants in later syllables were subject to voicing (which is why e.g. -az / -iz / etc. was the prevailing form of the masc. nominative singular ending).

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