"Cleave" and "primal words"

Discussion in 'Let's talk about the course!' started by Jim Hobbs, Mar 13, 2019 at 9:16 PM.

  1. Jim Hobbs

    Jim Hobbs New Member

    In the early 1970s I took a computer science formal models course in which the instructor mentioned what he called "primal words." He said these were words that had two opposed meanings. The example that he used was "cleave", which was also mentioned by Prof. Olsen in episode 93. (At the time, I wondered to our teacher if "awful" might also be primal, since it carries the meaning of inspiring reverential wonder as well as something very bad.)

    Has anyone else heard this term used in this way? If so, where? Thanks.
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  2. MithLuin

    MithLuin Well-Known Member

    Would 'raze' and 'raise' count? Or do they have to be the same word?

    I have not heard the term 'primal words' before, but apparently Sigmund Freud wrote an essay entitled "The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words, (1910)" so that might be where your prof got it from?
    Last edited: Mar 15, 2019 at 2:21 AM
  3. MithLuin

    MithLuin Well-Known Member

    I've done a bit more digging. I didn't find Freud's essay, but I found this paper by Tom Loveday on it:

    Apparently, Freud was referring to the work of philologist Karl Abel,
    Über den Gegensinn der Urworte, (1884), which Google translate thinks means 'About the Antithesis of the Original Words,' but I could see how someone gets 'primal' out of that.

    ...and to make it even more involved, that article I found has Loveday quoting Freud quoting Abel quoting yet another guy, Alexander Bain, who said: "The essential relativity of all knowledge, thought or consciousness cannot but show itself in language. If everything that we know can be viewed as a transition from something to something else, every experience must have two sides; and either every name must have a doubled meaning, or else for every meaning there must be two names."

    Freud explains the philology (which I assume he got from Abel) as:
    ‘A word that originally bore two meanings separates in the later language into two words with single meanings, in a process whereby each of the two opposed meanings takes over a particular phonetic “reduction” (modification) of the original root.’

    Freud, of course, uses this to explain both dreams and what are now called Freudian slips:
    "It is plausible to suppose, too, that the original antithetical meaning of words exhibits the ready-made mechanism which is exploited for various purposes by slips of the tongue that result in the opposite being said (of what is consciously intended. (fn to final sentence.))"

    ....in other words, some 19th century German philologists (or at least Abel) thought that Egyptian contained a lot of words that mean two things at once (typically opposites), and labeled this a characteristic of 'primal' language, with the later languages refining further to separate those ideas into different words with the same roots. The implication is, then, that a 'modern' word with two opposite meanings is a 'left over' primal word that wasn't forced into only one side of its meaning.

    I certainly have no way of evaluating the validity of any of that, other than to acknowledge that languages are based on roots and some words do have two meanings (and even opposite), like terrible, awesome, or cleave. But if "cleave" is really the go-to here, I guess not many words fit this description, and I'm not sure how 'primal' a word like 'cleave' is. I know one of the reasons we keep the meaning 'cling to' with cleave is because it appears in English translations of the book of Genesis: "Therefore shall a man leave his father and his mother, and shall cleave unto his wife: and they shall be one flesh." Genesis 2:24 King James Version, which Jesus quotes in Matthew 19:5 and Mark 10:7. I'm not sure I've heard cleave (with that meaning) outside the context of husband and wife; obviously Arwen uses it of Aragorn in LotR. But I think it is noticeably archaic, and that 'standard' usage is the other meaning - to split asunder, like a meat cleaver.

    But at the very least it is clear that your prof didn't make this up, and that it really is called that!
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  4. Jim Deutch

    Jim Deutch Active Member

    Wow, thanks for analyzing and unpacking that: it looked like complete nonsense at first!

    Googling etymologies,
    the origin of cleave in the "attach" sense is said to be "Old English cleofian, clifian, clīfan, of West Germanic origin; related to Dutch kleven and German kleben, also to clay and climb."
    the origin of cleave in the "split" sense is said to be "Old English clēofan, of Germanic origin; related to Dutch klieven and German klieben ."
    I can't make much sense of that, either...

    Google also informs me that "This phenomenon is called enantiosemy, enantionymy or antilogy (enantio- means "opposite"). An enantiosemic term is necessarily polysemic."
    Wikipedia has an article on "auto-antonyms" at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Auto-antonym with dozens of examples in English and a few in other languages (on the English wiki page) too.

    I am up to episode 28 of the History of English podcast from http://historyofenglishpodcast.com and he hasn't actually gotten to Old English quite yet (almost an Olsenish speed going from proto-Indo-European through the Roman Empire) but if I hear anything related to this I'll be sure to post it!
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  5. MithLuin

    MithLuin Well-Known Member

    Weather, fast, bound, and clip are all good examples, too.

    Part of me wants to discount slang, simply because by its very nature, slang means whatever you want it to. I think "tight" has at least four meanings in Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises, and you have to figure out from context whether the characters are drunk or broke or....

    But the word 'polysemic' is new to me, so at least there's a word for words with multiple meanings!

    Bain was a philosopher, so he wasn't necessarily talking about philology when he wrote that, but apparently the entire concept of using language to codify experience in the first place....
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  6. Elentir

    Elentir New Member

    Another such word is sanction, which can mean to officially allow, or to officially provide for a punishment.
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  7. Lalaith

    Lalaith New Member

    What an interesting topic, thanks for bringing it up! It's great when lingustics and philosophy combine.

    "Polysemic" is a great word to put into use, now that I know it. It's curious that Freud, Abel, and others labeled languages that used polysemic/enantiosemic words to be Primal, even though there are examples of this still being a common thing, such as people above gave.(Weather, sanction, etc.) I have to wonder: is this really a question of time or just a nonlinear lingustic phenomenon?

    A good point, MithLuin... I suppose it depends on how descriptivist you want to get about it. An extremist would say that 'all of Language, by it's very nature, means whatever you want it to.' I would say that slang is an important aspect of language, even if it changes from year to year or decade to decade. It does end up creating new words and changing our languages.

    And where to we draw the line at "slang" versus "vocabulary"? I think it is very blurred.

    Other thoughts? So many great things being to discuss!
  8. Faelivrin

    Faelivrin Well-Known Member

    From the etymology Jim uncovered for 'cleave', this must also be a relatively modern phenomenon. The two meanings of 'cleave' belonged to separate words in Old English, but through changes in pronunciation they turned into homonyms.
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