"Cleave" and "primal words"

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.
 

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?
 
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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:
https://www.academia.edu/22896901/Science_and_Art_3_The_Antithetical_Meaning_of_Primal_Words

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!
 

Jim Deutch

Active Member
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.
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!
 

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....
 

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?

Part of me wants to discount slang, simply because by its very nature, slang means whatever you want it to.
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!
 

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.
 

Jim Deutch

Active 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.
I wondered about that myself. Those etymologies were given me by google, without citation. It is possible that the differences between them are simply because the etymologies for the two senses of the word might have come from different sources, rather than the two senses having actually come from different original words. But I did not take the time to dig any deeper; anybody here have OED access?
 

MithLuin

Well-Known Member
I have to wonder: is this really a question of time or just a nonlinear lingustic phenomenon?
My very very limited understanding is that 19th century German philologists were apt to claim all sorts of things on very minor evidence. No doubt they got some things right, but Abel's conclusion (or Freud's wording of it, anyway) looks highly suspect to me. Much more likely to be a trait observed in many languages, not just early ones.

The only validity that seems to have to me is when a language does not distinguish between two things - so, for instance, when they have no word for 'blue' because they lump blue together with another color that we in English would consider to be a different color. Not terribly surprising that in Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia, the same word means 'ice,' 'snow,' and 'hail.' They don't really have need to distinguish between different types of solid-state water! Whereas Arabic, another Semitic language, has a bunch of different words for types of camels, and in English you'd have to resort to descriptions to say that because we just say 'camel' and then modify as necessary.

So I see the value in interpreting the distinctions and nuance a language has developed as an indication of what concepts that language is meant to convey (which is different for different cultures with different histories and different geographic realities), but I hesitate to go so far as to agree that it's really a trait of 'primal' languages to have double meanings unless some other linguist backs Abel up. [So far, the only person other than Freud I've found who picks up Abel's ideas is Derrida.]

Oh, and Lalaith...does your lightbulb say 'Isaac'? Very cool design!
 

Lalaith

New Member
I hesitate to go so far as to agree that it's really a trait of 'primal' languages to have double meanings
I totally agree! Good to hear someone mention that they had very little evidence. Their hypothesis sounded a bit off to me. Even bordering on Social Darwinist philosphies, which wouldn't be a huge surprize.
And once you get into componding nouns and adjectives, the idea of how many "words there are for something" becomes super confusing.
Really good point about the tie-in from semantics to cultures and histories.

anybody here have OED access?
I do indeed.(Thanks to my school) The OED website lists "cleave" as a verb going back to a1100. (and the noun form "cleft" seems to have started in the 1300s) The definition dating to that time is "To part or divide by a cutting blow; to hew asunder; to split."
Here is a shortened portion of the etymology it gives me:
OED said:
Common Germanic: Old English clíofan, cléofan... corresponding to Old Saxon clioƀan... Old High German chlioban ... Old Norse kljúfa... not recorded in Gothic < Old Germanic type *kleuƀ-, klauƀkluƀum, kluƀano-, corresponding to pre-Germanic *gleubh-, in Greek γλυϕ- ‘to cut with a knife, carve’, and perhaps Latin glūb- ‘to peel, flay’.
There are also entries for meanings of "a basket"(1577) and "to stick fast or to adhere."(c888)

And yes, indeed, that is the translation of my lightbulb! Glad you like it!
 

Jim Deutch

Active Member
An aside for this thread, but the History of English Podcast episode 30 has an interesting take on the legend of Arthur (more relevant to the Malory Le Mort D'Arthur course).

He has been tracing the development of the English language, and there's a problem around the time of the Anglo-Saxon invasions: almost no contemporary writing survives. So we are reduced to indirect evidence about what actually happened. The traditional linguistic evidence seems to indicate that Celtic speakers were pretty much wiped out: there are only about a dozen Celtic words in modern English (disregarding place names). You'd expect a whole lot more Celtic words if the Anglo-Saxon and native Celts merged after the conquest. More recent evidence from genetics tells a different story though: no more than 20% of modern genes in the British Isles are of Anglo-Saxon origin (much less if you include mitochondrial DNA, which passes down through the maternal line only). But we do know that there was massive emigration: many Celts ended up in Brittany, in what is now France. And here's where King Arthur comes in.

The legends of Arthur originated in France, and were brought back to England with the Norman Conquest. As many as a third of the "Norman" soldiers were actually mercenaries from Brittany, and were largely Celts. As new-made Englishmen, he says, they needed a legendarium for their new-made England, and Arthur was already part of their tradition from Brittany which had been their home for hundreds of years. Historical accuracy, of course, was not so relevant. And it was these guys that developed all the Arthurian stories, according to this theory, both in England and back "home" in Brittany.

I thought that was interesting. I should probably listen to the episode again: I expect I failed to absorb all the points and caveats and wrinkles of the story...
 
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