April 26, 2015

The relationship between translation and etymology

by brenton

The word “etymology” comes from the Greek “etymon” which means “true sense” and “logia” which means “study of.”  However, etymology doesn’t necessarily mean studying the true meanings of words.  Rather, it refers to a historical study of how a certain word originated, something which can be very useful when it comes to providing translation services.

In modern times, etymological study was sparked off by Sir William Jones, a British philologist living in India in the late eighteenth century.  Sir Jones conducted a study of Sanskrit and noted the similarities between Sanskrit, Greek and Latin.  He believed that these three ancient languages might have come from a common root and were, possibly, related to Gothic (an extinct language used by the Goths) and Celtic languages.  Through his work and those of others during the Age of Enlightenment, the study of languages and their relation to each other gained an impetus.

Today, etymologists study the origins of words in the following ways:

  1. Philology: Philology refers to the study of language through historical texts.  By reading historical texts and comparing them with each other, etymologists can find out if a certain word meant something different at different points in history or if, at the same point in history, different languages used the same word to mean similar things.

Some interesting facts discovered via philological research include the fact that the words “set” and “sit” come from the same root, as do the words “bless” and “blood.”  The first example may not be too difficult to imagine because there’s a certain similarity between “setting” something down and “sitting” down yourself.  However, it’s harder to spot the common root of “bless” and “blood” until you understand that the word “bless” originally meant “to mark with blood.”

  1. Dialectological Data: By studying various dialects of the same language, etymologists can pinpoint the subtle differences between them and therefore discover the common roots of similar-sounding words.
  2. Comparative Method: This is pretty much the method used by William Jones, where he compared Sanskrit, Greek and Latin.  A systematic comparison can yield many similarities and differences, pointing us to the common roots of words.
  3. Semantic Change: This refers to studying how words come to change in meaning over time, sometimes coming to mean something entirely different from the original.  For example, the word “awful” originally meant “awe-inspiring” but slowly came to mean its opposite.  The word “guy” is a reference to Guy Fawkes who tried to blow up the English Houses of Parliament in 1605.  Thereafter, his effigy, called a “Guy” was burnt in commemoration and “guy” came to mean any grotesque-looking person.  Later, it was adapted to mean any man whatsoever and today, in the plural, it even refers to a group of men and/or women who can be referred to as “you guys.”

As we can see, language is a living, evolving thing and a good translator must always be aware, as far as possible, of the connections that exist between words in the same language and in different languages.  Moreover, a good translator needs to keep in mind that languages didn’t only change in the past; they are also changing as we speak (literally!).  So etymology, the historical study of the origins of words is not just interesting but also useful when it comes to making accurate translations today.  Contact us for translations that take into account the subtle differences between words and languages.

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