The Etymological Argument - Fallacy or Sound Move

Thesis (M.A.), 2002

60 Pages, Grade: 8,5 von 10, M.A. with honours




1. Introduction

2. Etymology and the Meaning of Terms
2.1 Distinction from Conceptual History/ Cultural Studies
2.2 Opinions about the Etymological Argument/ the Etymological Fallacy
2.3 Divergences of the Meanings of Terms
2.4 The Term-Meaning Relation: Dynamic versus static Meaning

3. Etymology in Argumentation. From historical Meaning to lived Praxis
3.1 An illicit Reasoning Scheme for the Etymological Argument

4. Evaluation of the Etymological Argument
4.1 The modern Status of Etymology after Saussure
4.2 Popper's Criticism of ontological Platonic Epistemology
4.3 Implications: Key-Terms, Meanings and Definitions
4.4 The Use of Etymology for the Purpose of Giving a Definition
4.5 Fallacy Criteria for the Etymological Argument

5. Conclusion & Outlook

6. References

7. Notes


Table 1: Matrix of relevant action constituents

Table 2. Comparative overview -- Pragma-Dialectics, Toulmin, PPC

Table 3: Symptomatic Argumentation-Scheme, ~ essentialised 23,

Table 3: Fallacy-Matrix

Table 4: Sound change


This text is concerned with the place of etymology as an argument in a critical discussion according to the Pragma-Dialectic model. My thesis is a criticisms of the etymological argument for an ontological presupposition of essences beyond the observable real world that seem necessarily implied in forwarding etymology as a means to formulate and justify definitions of key-terms.

The research spells out criteria of fallaciousness and, eventually, suggest that all essential definitions are to be avoided or mitigated so that no ontological import takes place, but the essential method instead assumed as functionally equivalent to the Aristotelian method of defining according to the genus proximum and differentia specifica scheme to get rid of the ontological problem, at least.

The criticism of essentialism used is the German-Englishman Karl Popper's forwarded in The Open Society which is published, in English, at the end of the second world war in criticism of the European totalitarian political excesses at that time. It is a modern criticism that I bring in relation to the comparably relevant, yet somewhat older postulation of an arbitrary relation between the linguistic form and its meaning by the French linguist Ferdinand Saussure in his Course in General Linguistics, published by students in 1915.

Popper's criticism is, in his full intent, also a criticism of the methods of 20th century Social Sciences and Humanities in contrast to the Natural Sciences. I try to give this discussion some room but will disappoint anyone who reads the text for a statement on the methods debate. Its centrality is pointed out, though.

I make ample use of notes that distract a smooth reading substantially, especially as I decided to use endnotes. The first reading should be exercised in complete disregard of the footnotes. This way, you get what is in the text. The second should include the endnotes. This way you get to where I come from and it is the level at which criticism should find its most fruitful soil.
'Essentially, what you do in parliament is talking. Parliament. Look at the French word parler - to talk. There you have it'.

From a discussion on a Netherlands Radio Station, July 2002

1. Introduction

Take the above statement from the radio discussion and look up parliament in a dictionary. In the American Heritage College edition (1993:994) you will find the following definition of the term parliament:

par · lia · ment (phonetic) n. 1. A national representative body having supreme state legislative powers. 2. Parliament. The national legislature of various countries, esp. that of the United Kingdom. [ME, a meeting about national concerns > OFr. parlement > parler, to talk. See parley][i]

What is spelled out in this dictionary entry will be regarded a definition of the descriptively adequate term-to-meaning relation at the time of writing the dictionary. The entry states the term parliament and makes available by specification two of the term's meanings. Distinguished are the meaning 'material body', a group of people if you like, and 'constituent of a legal system', which is not a material body in the same sense. The legal constituent is what gives the body its de facto legal powers.

Obviously, what is said in the square brackets shows that the radio-speaker above was in agreement with the dictionary's editors. The text in the brackets is titled Etymologies (1993:xxvi) and defined thus: 'An etymology traces the history of a word from one language to another as far back as can be determined with reasonable certainty.'

What the speaker above has forwarded will be termed an etymological argument. The standpoint 'Essentially, what you do in parliament is talking' is linked to an argument in which the French term parler and its meaning to talk are presumed to support the standpoint.[ii]

From a Pragma-Dialectical perspective, the example constitutes a use of etymology as an argument. The practical question is: What can I justifiably do with an etymology in an argumentative situation? The theoretical questions is: What is the general form and what are the criteria for evaluating the soundness of an etymological argument?

The questions are obviously related: If criteria for fallaciousness are distilled, these can be used to classify uses of etymology as constituting sound and fallacious discussion moves. Good criteria will only be found if there is a principled reason for the exclusion of certain uses and the exclusion, then, takes place because and only because of this reason. Hence, we are looking for what goes wrong in particular variants of what, at this point, is still an undifferentiated notion of the etymological argument.

Both questions find their answer in this thesis. It is an answer that rejects etymology as a function of what is d e facto done in using etymology in a discussion. Precisely, the use of etymology as a method will show to be fallacious in the context of a critical discussion if this method is employed for the purpose of giving a definition of the term that features in the etymology.

The evaluation is, thus, based on the postulation of a discrepancy between the tool, the end and the situation. The standards under which tool, situation and end are evaluated are inspired by the Critical Rationalist tradition following, most notably, Karl Popper (1963, 1976, 1977).[iii] I use his criticism of essentialism, his stance for pluralism and against dogmatism as guidelines for the critical inquiry into fallacy conditions.

For the purpose at hand, I use the following crucial distinctions: term vs. referent, term vs. meaning, diachronic vs. synchronic, intensional vs. extensional, word meaning vs. speaker meaning. I start with a description of the methods and object of etymology as a branch of historical linguistics. The remaining distinctions, borrowed from linguistics and the philosophy of language, are introduced in due course.

Overall, two insights are employed for an evaluation: We judge from an informed perspective upon the scientific study of language change and stability on the one hand. On the other, we judge from an informed perspective on the dangers of dogmatic or essentialistic meaning assigning processes in discussions.

The minimal-strategy, then, is to arrive at the possibility of identifying two distinct types of the etymological argument, a real and a nominal variant. We will distinguish them according to their ends or outcomes and rule them out of a critical discussion because the employment of one of these types contradicts the normative postulate of pluralistic term-to-meaning relations and, like the other, fails to provide an acceptable reason why the meaning suggested by etymology is a critically potential meaning in the discussion at hand.[iv]

2. Etymology and the Meaning of Terms

The above definition of etymology given by the dictionary editors (lexicographers) reflects a distinctly modern development in linguistics. The tracing of a term's history in the diachronic perspective is to be contrasted with the study of language as a formal system in the synchronic perspective.[v]

The difference indicates a crucial methodological step: It allows one to isolate what is fully definable, namely: the presently formally determinable constellation of a given language. This new object of study is methodologically constituted in a reductive step by substracting from what would be fully definable only by and additional step of reconstruction, namely: the historic process of that very language whose presently final constellation constitutes itself as the modern primary object of investigation to the interested scholar.

The distinction between the synchronic vs. diachronic perspective relates closely to the axiom of the arbitrariness of the linguistic sign. This axiom gives a modern inquiry into language a special status. And I suggest that this special status consists in a claiming to have a good take on natural language by treating it primarily as a system that endows formal structures.

A description of these structures, then, would be a description of language from a perspective that is historically discharged and, thus, free of evolved criticism in regard to the validity of formal description. What can be seen in the language at surface level is fully specifiable and, therefore, at face value, unproblematic data. It is the level at which an enlightened subject perceives objectivity in language.[vi]

What used to be old etymology as distinct from how etymology is viewed today is, thus, presented as a change in a methodological perspective on language. In comparison, Trier distinguishes old from new etymology as follows:

Older, that is antique, medieval and baroc etymology moves in the synchronic perspective. By placing the word in view under the hallow of another, etymology wants to know the true content, το έτυμού. Accordingly, it is named έτυμο-λογϊά (striving for the true and eternal word-content). Not knowledge of the word's development is the aim of etymology, but the uncovering of a universalise-able core. Etymological reasoning is taken to promise helpful in the search for the right word in a speech, increase in depth, force and the transparency of speaking. Etymology is justified by its rhetorical and philosophical usability.

Trier (1972:816) [vii]

Thus, the method is not the crucial difference. Rather, the old purpose of etymology (rhetorical and philosophical usability) gives way to a systematic study exercised for the sake of specifying the object of historical linguistics in its systematic aspects. This amounts to the construction of a formal system to bring the de facto perceived linguistic systematicity into the terms and under the concepts of a generalized description.

The newer etymology is diachronic. It is based on the discoveries of 19th century historical sound-change theory. It has no hope anymore to be of use for stylistics, rhetoric, philosophy. It [the newer etymology, FZ] sees its purpose in itself. At the most it helps to build up a Germanic or Indo-germanic strand of ancient study.

Trier (1972:816) [viii]

The observation of systematic sound changes and the corresponding laws of phonetic change formulated for the Indo-European languages are a product of the 19th century comparative study of languages.[ix] It marks the rise of a structural and formal over a semantic approach to the study of languages that, methodologically and terminologically, co-exists historically with Darwin's theory of biological evolution.[x]

As a consequence, the regularity of the changes motivates a foregrounding of the structural aspects of language relative to the semantic aspect and, thereby, leads to the abandonment of traditional etymology or, at least, reduces its practicability through a re-definition of the proper object of inquiry after Saussure.[xi]

The fall of historical semantics in the philological departments is intimately connected to the reception and influence of Saussure's Course de Linguistique General. The structuralist and poststructuralist semantics is the semantics of a language that is cut off from its history.

Stierle (1978:173)[xii]

The perceived quality of this methodological cutting off is, I think, what motivates Lyons in his 1977 standard work Semantics to state what is regarded a common-sense insight in contemporary linguistic semantics, if not linguistic theory:

The etymology of a lexeme is, in principle, synchronically irrelevant. The fact that the word curious, for example, can be traced, back to Latin curiosus meaning 'careful' or 'fastidious' (and that it also had this meaning in earlier stages of English) does not imply that this, rather than 'inquisitive', is its true or correct meaning in present-day standard English.

Lyons (1977, Vol. I : 244)[xiii]

This being the accepted view in linguistics, we may note it as a critical statement upon the term-to-meaning relation that concerns us. In simple words: Current linguistic use is regarded determinative for the specification of a term's meaning, no matter what the employed form's history may amount to.

We may also note that Lyons is certainly right in his wording: The content of a historically warranted term-to meaning relation does not imply, and certainly not logically imply, that the original content is or should be the same as the contemporary content. However, we should likewise note that the notion of the true or correct meaning is not given up. Lyon retains it. Under a careful interpretation, he states merely that the true or correct meaning of a term in present-day standard English is not necessarily to be found in etymology, old or new.[xiv]

The requirement for one particular meaning is what Lyon retains as the correct or true meaning. It is a methodological requirement. Without it, you are in no position to say what exactly was said. You could, as it were, only say what may have been meant. The objectivity of the phonetic linguistic surface over which the sound-laws are formulated is not quite as easily reached on the semantic level.[xv]

For an old language like Greek or just the Middle English Period the phonetic form is, due to the finality of speakers, a 100% reconstruction. You only have written text and then infer from that how that text sounds would it have been spoken. You start from textually identifiable units and reach for sound and sound change, meaning and meaning change respectively.

In respect to the role and outcome of modern etymological inquiries, Malkiel, in the Encyclopaedia of Language and Linguistics, has the following to say:

It is correct to state that the old style etymology, whether satisfied with mere guesses or serving the purpose of helping one to establish and, later, control regular sound changes, seems to have run its course (...). Etymology thus becomes an account -- better still, a bundle of accounts -- of individual word histories or word biographies, with the experienced etymologist's prime commitment remaining that of establishing an equilibrium of the separate forces invoked.

Malkiel (1994:1172)

I propose we understand the de facto existent separate forces invoked of which Malkiel speaks as a, well yes: natural evil. Discrepancies of views in etymology is just as much a function of the reconstructive method as of the political chargedness of historical linguistics.

How so? You just do not find neutral texts to work with, because there was, historically, no neutrality that would equate with the modern neutrality that linguistics acquires by understanding itself as methodically descriptive. That neutrality is a modern neutrality and it would be stupid to presuppose it in your non-modern texts. Linguistic neutrality is a modern analyst-category, not a historic speaker-category.

Thus, in this brief overview of etymology we distinguish old etymology as a primarily semantic inquiry into the right use of words that lets itself be informed both by the history of the term and its current day use. New etymology, on the other hand, is a historical inquiry primarily into the regularity of sound change on the phonetic level and a specification of a loan-effect's semantic direction or trajectory from one language to another on the lexical level.

Instead of generalizing over classes, new etymology is primarily concerned with individual terms, not sets of terms. Why handy came to be the German term for those situations in which the English use cell-phone or mobile is, in the end, an semantic explanation to demand from modern etymology.

Insofar as new etymology is semantic it is concerned with specifying the primary meaning of a term in a giver language and the points of contact at which a term T1 in the primary meaning M1 from the historical stage S1 of language L1 is adopted as the term T2 in the meaning M2 into the historical stage S2 of language S2. The regularities of change (in and across languages), among them the motivations for neologisms (the coining of new terms and meanings), are manifold.

Ross (1969:31, 19581) distinguishes between '(A) Changes due to the influence of one language upon another and (B) Changes not due to this cause.' The (A) causes he terms 'loan-effects', the (B) causes are, again, divided into 'B.1 Sound change; B2 Semantic change; B.3 Analogy.' The B2 category, that is of relevance when it comes to the meaning of terms '[...] may best be described by saying that it comprises all those linguistics changes in which the attention of the philological observer is focussed upon the meaning, rather than upon the form' (p. 33).

For the German term Handy, you could say that the English grammatical adjective handy, meaning something like 'good for a particular purpose', comes to be used as a German noun, meaning cell-phone around the time that cell-phones become not possible but popular, which would be around 1997/98, for Germany. That would not be incorrect, but one had to do a lot of research and, in particular these days, speak to the marketing departments to have a better than grammatically adequate explanation.[xvi]

It seems fair to say, then, that semantic change on the word or term level is one of the most difficult and least understood phenomena in linguistics. And it seems just as fair to say that this difficulty is matched in respect to the local meaning assigning processes on the utterance and discourse level.[xvii] From the diachronic perspective, semantics is difficult because the reconstructive method does not allow for more than plausible results, to begin with. Compare Malkiel above, who speaks of balancing of divergent views.

From the synchronic perspective, semantics is difficult as soon as the mere conventionality of meaning (the implicit agreement on the use of a word in a specific meaning) is made explicit. The meaning dynamics of a discussion are what the (originally structuralist) notion fixedness of meaning wants to remedy, but never fully achieves unless in closed systems. And that means semantically specified, too. Structure is only useful if the semantic aspect has its situationally adequate place in the structure.

2.1 Distinction from Conceptual History/Cultural Studies

A field outside of linguistics proper, the young and, some claim, distinctly German study of the history of concepts (Begriffsgeschichte) attempts to come to (better) terms with the semantic question. Stierle writes:

There is however a humanities-historical form of meaning-historical inquiry that emerged from the philological tradition of historical semantics. This form of inquiry claims its own place in between Linguistics and Literary Studies. The works from this direction are oftentimes rather essayistic than strictly methodologically oriented. Yet, precisely in this open form they grasp the phenomena of language-change in an oftentimes subtle and precise way. A point of origin for the entire direction may be located in Karl Vossler (1913) who conceives of a language as an expression of a nation's and an epoch's collective consciousness.

Stierle (1978:158, footnote 11)[xviii]

The specification of meaning assigning and meaning shifting processes in a given language, then, is attempted for particular words of a language. These terms correspond to cultural key-concepts (freedom, justice, equality, autonomy, democracy, pluralism, ...). Therefore, the object of a history of concepts are the different conceptions that historically corresponded to the same term.

In the Anglo-American tradition, Raymond Williams' (1976) work is, by Martin Jay (1998:2) at least, regarded as the outcome of '[...] pioneering efforts in tracing the fortunes of what he [Williams, FZ.] calls keywords' (my italics). These efforts

[...] have demonstrated the value of frankly acknowledging the ideological charge on certain pivotal terms, which Williams defines as 'significant, binding words in certain activities and their interpretations' and 'significant, indicative words in certain forms of thought' (my italics).

Jay (1998:2)[xix]

Let me use Jay citing Williams to explicate further what we are looking for in this thesis and what is distinctly different about the Pragma-Dialectic approach. There are four italicised words in the quote above: terms, activities, interpretations thereof and forms of thought. I rearrange these and re-state the thesis from above that said we look upon the etymological argument as the use of etymology as a (i) method for the (ii) purpose of giving a definition in the (iii) context of a critical discussion.

(i)-(iii) are to be reconciled, to be justified, and it will be claimed that this is impossible in contemporary objective scientific thought. At the most one can have two notions reconciled, but never all three. In a matrix, it looks like this:

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Table 1: Matrix of relevant action constituents [xx]

While the cultural semanticist is interested in the ideological charge of (the use of) specific culturally important (pivotal) terms, we are interested in the ideological charge of the particular activity of giving a (indeed any) term's definition.

Like the cultural semanticist we suspect certain forms of thought to be indicated by (the use) of certain terms and we describe a distinct form of thought that, we claim, underlies the etymological argument as an argument-scheme on which particular arguments are built, mapped or constructed in an argumentative situation.

Just as the cultural semanticist, we distinguish actions from interpretations. In fact, the Pragma-Dialectic reconstruction of argumentative (sequences of) discourse amounts to a particular interpretation of situated participant behaviour that, in turn, specifies the kind of action that the behaviour is to count as when dialectical obligations are to be allocated to the participants of the discourse. These obligations consists practically in the de facto owing of a justification for the forwarded standpoint argumentation if prompted, nothing less.

In the case of the etymological argument we interpret the use of etymology as the giving of a definition. Thus, we interpret the behaviour according to its result, namely the intersubjective availability of a finite material statement that was either not available at all in the discourse or not available as a definition. And we demand that a definition be justified in respect to both the situational adequacy of its outcome and its procedural features. Content of definition and method of defining, respectively.

Before showing exactly how etymology is a low quality tool to build a definition, I present what can be regarded at least as descriptions (if not definitions) of and opinions about the etymological argument or etymological fallacy. The account will be brief as the stance towards etymology has been a rather uncritical one in the, admittedly young, tradition that Pragma-Dialectics situates itself in.

2.2 Opinions about the Etymological Argument/ the Etymological Fallacy

As a standing term, etymological fallacy is currently more entrenched than etymological argument. You may test this by comparing the search results for both terms in the world wide web and an average university library system and expect to find mainly sources from religious science. The false interpretation of a biblical source, as one not backed by the reference cited or employed in a different sense than in the reference cited, is commonly regarded to constitute the etymological fallacy.

Charles Hamblin (1970:142) in his standard work Fallacies notes the Etymological Argument in passing, stating only that it had been mentioned by Abraham Fraunce (1588) as a new addition to the traditional types under the heading 'Notation or Etymology'. Fraunce's example is:

A woman is a woe man, because she worketh a man woe... But all the sport is heare the Moonkish notations of woordes both Greeke and Latin... .

Hamblin (1970:142)

Fraunce is noted by Hamblin (1970:142) to be 'the first writer to tell us of the Fallacies, among others, of False Definition, False Etymology, False Testimony and False Analogy.' Hamblin does not develop further.[xxi] I have not read Fraunce, yet.

David Christal (1985) talks about the etymological fallacy as:

[...] the view that an earlier (or the oldest) meaning of a word is the correct one (e.g. that history really means investigation, because this was the meaning the etymon had in classical Greek). This view is commonly held, but it contrasts with the attitude of the linguist, who emphasises the need to describe the meanings of modern words as they are now, and not as they have been in some earlier state of the language (the oldest state, of course, being unknown).

Christal (1985:113)[xxii]

Christal opts for a meaning-is-use view -- '(...) the meanings of modern words as they are now (...)' -- and rejects the relevance of an etymological inquiry into original meaning. His rejection is based, firstly, on the contingency of the historical stage that an etymological inquiry can reconstruct. Secondly, he emphasizes a need for present meaning specification today that cannot be satisfied by a historical inquiry.

While this sounds right, he strictly speaking begs the question. That there is nothing critical to be learned about the present meaning of terms (or the use of present terms in particular meanings, at that) would be presupposed, if he is to have a point. One would like to say in qualification that, of course, some things can be learned from an inquiry into the history of a language, just not employed to any end.

John Lyons (1977), whose work we have referenced above already, brings the term etymology fallacy in direct relation to the Saussurean distinction. He says:

A particular manifestation of the failure to respect the distinction of the diachronic and the synchronic (coupled with a failure to keep distinct the descriptive and the prescriptive point of view in the discussion of language) is what might be called the etymological fallacy: the common belief that the etymology of a lexeme can be determined by investigating their origins.

Lyons (1977, vol. I:244)

And he seems to use the word etymology in its Greek original meaning (true word-meaning) to criticize not those who assume that there be a true meaning, but those who believe the true meaning could be 'determined by investigating their origins'.[xxiii] And that is a criticism of the method for arriving at the true meaning. It is not a criticism of setting out for the true meaning.

What we may retain from this overview is the following compressed statement: The arbitrariness of the linguistic sign is the arbitrariness of the etymological fallacy. The case, as far as we have seen, hinges on the Saussurean distinction into a synchronic and a diachronic perspective on language. Without that separation, the above emphasis on meaning-as-present-use or the primacy of the semantic present, if you like, would be simply unmotivated.

We will not touch the Saussurean distinction. Rather we highlight it as a necessary presupposition, thus add its defence to the dialectical responsibilities of those who adopt the solution presented here.

Plus, as Lyons states, the distinction prescriptive vs. normative in respect to language use is, to say the least, coupled with the diachronic vs. synchronic distinction. And this shows when the issue of an argumentative situation comprises traditional, historically warranted, for short: conservative standpoints (and parties at that) and those of parties who, in exercising their right for invention, novelty and social-reform, find their disagreement space to include divergent meanings of terms.

2.3 Divergences of the Meanings of Terms

Divergences in the meaning of terms are indicative of the divergence of the languages and thus cultures that are spoken or, at least, used in (or during preparations of) discussions. I mean to say this in the full critical sense and claim that we speak, in academia at least, two languages and use a third and fourth at the same time standardly in 2002 A.C. Our own(!), English and Latin (less so for Greek) and Logic.

Francis Bacon's belief in Latin as the eternal language of Science, which could historically be a linguistically descriptive language only since 1915, the publishing date of Saussures Cours, proved historically valid exactly up until the end of the 19th century. It is in the 20th century that the political domination of an American-English axis has its linguistic repercussions in the new language of the Sciences being English. The U.S.A. are the de facto strongest nation to emerge from the 20th century European struggles for domination. The English language became the scientifically accepted lingua franca that it had been unofficially all along.

That English did not exist as just another language may be indicated by pointing to Third Reich Germany negotiating the World War Two treaty with the Japanese government in English. The representatives of two undemocratic people with quasi-feudally structured 'governments' from collective societies at the same table and mitigated by diplomatic protocol. English (locally like Dutch, that was in a German 19th century port-city, Hamburg, the local! trader's means of communication) is the de facto language of international discourse and that has, historically at least, been a trade-discourse, too. If not even primarily a trade discourse. England is next to France the third historical axis power in continental Europe, Germany being the third.

Jürgen Habermas (1998), speaks of a short 20th European century, extending from 1914 (First World War) to 1989 (Soviet disintegration, German reunification), following a long 19th European century beginning in 1789 with the French revolution. By means of citing Habermas' contrasting an American conception of liberty (free individual choice of an otherwise unbounded agent) with a European conception of liberty (collectively born responsibility in regard to shared cost, inspired by the idea of a welfare-state) it should be quite clear that, by sheer translation, the term freedom or French: liberté or German: Freiheit is the same in North-America and in Europe, but it has different meanings on either side of the Atlantic.[xxiv]

Habermas is equally clear in saying that Europeans, these days, seem to adopt the American perspective and prefer to forget about the distinctly European tradition of understanding both the term freedom and the exercising of a praxis that is called free. At this point, then, the terminological and the material side of the issue lay bare. It makes the greatest difference what a speaker means with a term and that is not just a linguistic issue.

The issue is immediately relevant in the sense that Kapteyn (2002:38), a law professor at the University of Amsterdam, makes clear in an article on the (debate about a) European constitution. He says that what is a common constitution is not brought about by adopting new words for old things, because it is not possible to be brought about in this way. There is a material difference, not just a nominal one. In respect to the European constitution it will certainly be more that one difference.

Here is his quote:

Constitutionalism basically entails the desire to prevent arbitrary government. The means to this end is to subordinate governmental power to rules such that the law serves both as an instrument of the government and as a safeguard against the government. The exercise of public power in what we have come to call the state raises the question as to whether the terms of constitutionalism are applicable to an international organization such as the European Union. Such a practice may be justified, on the understanding that the mere use of these terms will not transform the Union into a state, even a federal one' (my italics).

Kapteyn (2002:38)[xxv]

Now, that parties, for the above reasons, may eventually find themselves using the same terms in different meanings would not be the crucial problem, though. Rather, what kind of work is shouldered onto the meaning of terms in arguing for their standpoints will constitute the problem-case at hand here. Hence, we talk about the dynamics of the term-meaning relation in discussions next.


[i] The bracketed statement says that parliament is a term that dates back to period of the English language that is known as Middle English (ME 1600 A.C.) in the meaning following thereafter (meeting of national concern). This meaning explanation is also called a gloss by the lexicographer. Further, it is stated that the term entered the English language from Old French (WHEN) where parlement and parler are described by the same gloss, namely to talk.

[ii] The argument is linked to the standpoint by appearing in close vicinity to the standpoint, at a conditionally relevant moment in the turn. It is reconstructed as an argument in support of the standpoint since it appears as justification for the standpoint. Exactly if and how an etymology can support what standpoint is, of course, the central question of this thesis.

[iii] His 1963 Conjectures and Refutations is the standard reference for the science-theoretic falsification principle. His rejection of the attempt to justify theories instead of falsifying them, that is proving them to be wrong, though, is an 1959 Postscript addition to the original (Compare Popper 1976:149).The 1944 Open Society and its Enemies (cited in my translation of the German edition from 1977) contains what Bertrand Russell regards an unorthodox but entirely justified criticism of Platonic ideas and his essence vs. appearance distinction The 1974 autobiography of Popper (cited as 1976) is especially relevant for the centrality of the notion of essentialism in Poppers criticism. The 14 page 'Long digression concerning essentialism' (pp.17-31) sets the stage for the entire book and is sub-titled:' What still divides me from most contemporary Philosophers'. And that would be the following: Popper rejects essences as a metaphysical category tout cours.

[iv] Critically potential is understood as solving the problem. This is a situational phrasing and I centrally assume that all de facto definitions in argumentative contexts are reducible to their situated circumstances.

[v] Saussure uses chess as an analogy by means of which to explain the distinction between diachronic and synchronic. Chess can be analysed, like language, as a rule-governed system that is, again, like language, sufficiently unrestricted to allow for individuality in the choice of moves or choice of linguistic expression, respectively. Studying the sum of the individual moves of a particular chess- match, from the moment the game started until now, corresponds to studying the sum of individual changes of a particular language. This is the diachronic perspective. Studying the constellation of the figures on the chess-board at a given moment -- to evaluate not what process brought the constellation about but to evaluate the constellation from the directions in which the game may possibly continue -- corresponds to the synchronic perspective. Like every analogy, there are discrepancies between the carrier (chess) and the target (language). The gravest discrepancy is: The rules of chess are known beforehand. The rules of language, on the other hand, are to be described or found still.

[vi] Surface level is what the conversation-analyst codes in a transcript. A discourse analytic perspective is already less that surface level. Surface level is the level of ethno-methodological description, practically informed by coding conventions that, in the strict ethno-methodological approach aligned to speakers' categories. Ethno-methodology is what makes Erwing Goffman appear a man of letters, rather than a scholar, although he is, in my eyes. His ethno-methodological observations are falsifiable. It is worth to keep this in mind, when Popper's criticism of the essential methods of social sciences is introduced later. Ethno-Methodology would not be essentialistic in the Popperian sense. On the contrary, it is the most situational you can get.

[vii] We will come back to this definition of old etymology later. Note, right away, though that I chose 'accordingly' to translate the German original term 'daher'. The author seems to mean the following: The activity of old etymology corroborates with the Greek meaning. Ältere, d.h. antike, mittelalterliche und barocke Etymologie bewegt sich im Synchronen. Indem sie das zu betrachtende Wort von einem andern anstrahlen lässt, will sie den wahren Inhalt, το έτυμού, erkennen. Danach heisst sie έτυμο-λογϊά (Streben nach dem wahren und ewigen Wortinhalt). Nicht die Entwicklung des Wortes zu erkennen ist ihr Ziel, sondern die Aufdeckung eines universalisierbaren Kerns. Von etymologischer Überlegung verspricht man Hilfe bei der Suche nach dem richtigen Wort in der Rede, Steigerung der Tiefe, Kraft und Durchsichtigkeit des Sprechens. Etymologie rechtfertigt sich aus ihrer rhetorischen und philosophischen Nutzfertigkeit.

[viii] Die neuere Etymologie ist diachronisch. Sie ruht auf den Entdeckungen der historischen Lautlehre des 19. Jhd. Sie hat keine Hoffungen mehr, der Stilistik, der Rhetorik, der Philosophie nutzen zu können. Sie sieht ihren Zweck in sich selbst. Allenfalls hilft sie, eine germanische und indogermanische Altertumskunde aufzubauen. Note that in 1972 it seems to have been still acceptable to use the word indo-germanic as a descriptive term. Today, indo-european is the word of choice and while being a descriptive term, the motivation for using the latter rather than the first not be explained without recourse to linguistic ideology. Saying indo-germanic rather than indo-european results in criticism for the suspected racial distinction behind the term Germanic.

[ix] Sound changes are described by generalizations over sets of terms and stages of linguistic history. For example, the following set is subsumable under a law stating that Old English (OE) ā changed into Middle-English (ME) ō and again into Modern English (MnE) o or ou: OE ā < ME ō < MnE o, ou.

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

Table 4. Sound Change

The table is adopted from Ross (1969, 19581:31).

He says the historical part presupposes the descriptive as a method to build on. Thus, theory formulation sees the descriptive as basics, the statements made on the historical part, then, is falsified automatically when the descriptive method is falsified. Hence, the two parts are dependent, they must corroborate to make for a good description of, first, language and, then, its historically manifested change or development -- its flux, in ancient terms.

Compare Nehrlich (1992) who subtitles her Semantic Theories in Europe 1890-1930 thus: From Etymology to Contextuality. Out of the work, in Hutton's (1998) terms, 'etymology arises as the central villain of the story.' She researches the French, English and German semantic traditions in a valuable overview.

[x] Darwin's (1859) family terminology matches the modern etymological vocabulary: The terms for the historical stages of a language are terms for family relations: parents, children and so on. Compare Ross 1969, 19581:27 for the same terms. The systematicity of most notably Bühler's sound changes are the regularities that functionally match Darwin's law of natural selection. However, it is false to say that Darwin's genealogical model of the species would be a model for Bühler's genealogical model of language. Rather, the biological and the linguistic model are both model's of an approaches to natural evolution. Linguistic evolution, then, is modelled on the family, where the generations correspond to socio-historical stages of cultural development. The linguistic data from these historical stages constitute the surface expressions of that development. Family terminology employed for theoretic purposes is what the Greeks employed in taxonomic systems already.

[xi] In this respect, Hutton's (1998:190) thesis is misleading: 'The argument will be that whenever we debate, reflect on or argue about the meaning of words we are involved in a form of etymologising.' And that is well said if this 'form of etymologising' is taken to be what was called old etymology. Hutton does not seem to distinguish between old and new etymology, though.

Overall, his conclusions are: Present-day '[...] linguistics, with its vernacular nationalism, can offer only a caricature of the socio-historical and political philosophies that make use of etymology' (p.200) To rephrase: Contemporary descriptive linguistics has no take on the use of etymology in debates about the meaning of terms. And since it is descriptive, it cannot have. If a term comes to be used to have a certain meaning, for whatever reason, the criteria for recording that use (as standard or deviant) are fulfilled. The facticity of the term-to-meaning relation is its recordability.

[xii] Der Fall der historischen Semantik ist aufs engste mit der Rezeption und dem Einfluss von Saussures Course de Linguistique general verknüpft. Die strukturalistische und poststrukturalistische Semantik ist die Semantik einer Sprache, die von ihrer Geschichte abgeschnitten ist.

[xiii] Cited after Hutton (1998:199). Hutton's is a very good article to start with and I owe much of the overview that I eventually gained from the leads he provided.

[xiv] Rather, a descriptive dictionary, like the one we used above, will give you the generally accepted (list of) term-to-meaning relation(s), the potential of a term to be used in specific meaning. And with these options at hand, the analyst or lay-speaker is still in no position to say with certainty in which specific meaning a term is used in a specific speech situation. Disambiguation, the reduction of vagueness in discourse, it happens as a co-operatively managed process between speaker's (Compare van Rees 1992, being a conversation analytic approach). The linguist, understanding his field as a modern descriptive science, is concerned with the semantic boundaries of a given term by describing speaker's behaviour (and making sense of it). To use bank in the sense of 'automobile' will require special agreement among speakers. To use bank in the meaning 'financial institution' and not as 'side of the river', on the other hand, requires that the term be used in one sense only -- in other words: It is necessarily required that the term signify, in a specific situation, one particular meaning, not several options. This particular meaning is termed speaker meaning, meaning in use or intended meaning and is put to use on both word, sentence and higher textual levels.

[xv] On the opposite, with regard to the attempts of a semantic componential analysis following Katz and Postal (1964) -- who explicitly suggest their theory as a move to integrate meaning into (generative) syntactic structure by describing the generation of meaning from determined semantic components and their mode of combination -- Lyons (1977, II: 553) is quite explicit: 'But it is fair to say, without prejudice to the possibility that this approach to the question will ultimately prove viable, that all such attempts have failed'. The Katz and Postal approach is a 100% notational variant of the Aristotelian essential definition consisting in a postulation of the term's referent's genus plus its specific difference from its neighbour in the taxonomy. The categorical taxonomy, again, is a required presupposition for syllogistic logic. It is what gave us the essential definition of the categorical class Man as biped animal to which the members belong by virtue of belonging to the class of animals and exemplifying the property biped. Compare Taylor (1989). Note, too, that the assigning of the genus and the differentia as the shortest two-feature description is what makes the definition essential. The relevance of all this is clearer below.

It is likewise worthwhile to note that the method of treating the semantic aspect of language in a compositional way (finite parts plus specified mode of combination, usually addition in the mathematical sense) goes Back to Frege (1892), who in turn is inspired by Brentano. The Philosophy of Logical Atomism (Russel), a universalism, is based on semantic compositionality and (the late) Wittgenstein is the severest critic thereof.

[xvi] Handy may just be germanized English, Denglish, the product of a brain-storming session that pleased the corporate customer, then the public. Then again, German handlich 'handy' is structurally a compositum of the free derivational morpheme (read: content) hand and the bound inflexional morpheme (read: grammatical form) - lich, a suffix the meaning of which one would gloss functionally by coming up with something like 'ADEJECTIVIZING'.

So, handlich becomes consumer-culture handy? Or is it the English adjective handy that gives us the German Noun Handy ? Or both at the same time?

[xvii] Compare Franck (1981:231) who, in her criticism of Speech Act Theory, points to the problem of context-dependency of meaning as a function of the applied theoretical apparatus:

'The failure to approach the problem of context-sensitivity in a differentiated way is intricately linked to another quite fundamental question: the linguistic theory, especially the theory of semantics, on which speech act theory is (more implicitly than explicitly) based, is a semantics modelled in many respects after logical semantics. It is true that speech act theory showed that propositional (truthfunctionally described) meaning is not the only kind of meaning expressed in natural language. But on the other hand the way in which propositional and illocutionary meaning combine remain to a large extend unclarified' (my italics).

Thus, on the level of semantically specified logical form 'Paul met the woman of his life and married' vs. 'Paul married and met the woman of his life' are semantically equivalent. They have the same logical form. And this is the problem of the compositionality of meaning that Franck finds in trying to explain sufficiently how 'It is cold in here' can come to be a request rather than an assertion.

Note also that the 'virtutes elocutionis' (among them: aptum as the most general norm of situational and contextual dependency; latinitas as linguistic correctness; perspicuitas as clarity or intelligibility for the hearer) which Franck (1981:234) takes from classical Roman rhetoric (to show their closeness to what is postulated in Grice's Co-Operative Principle) would, on the word level, be pretty much what an old style etymology tries to secure. It is here that Cicero's remark from his Topica (§35) fits in. He states that the etymology of a term may be of help to the orator in finding ideas about the topic at hand. Cited after Ochs (1995).

[xviii] FZ:I translate the German 'Geist' as 'collective consciousness'. 'Geist' referes here to an intersubjective mentality, not a subjective mentality that one would refer to by choosing 'mind' or simply 'consciousness'. Es gibt indes eine aus der philologischen Tradition der historischen Semantik hervorgegangene geistesgeschichtliche Form der Bedeutungsgeschichte, die bis heute einen eigenen Platz zwischen Sprach- und Literaturwissenschaft einnimmt. Die Arbeiten aus dieser Richtung sind oft eher essayistisch als streng methodisch ausgerichtet, erfassen aber gerade in dieser offenen Form die Phänomene des Sprachwandels oft subtil und genau. Als Ausgangspunkt dieser ganzen Richtung kann der idealistische Neuphilologe Karl Vossler (1913) gelten, der die Sprache als Ausdruck des Geistes einer Nation und einer Epoche begreift.

[xix] Jay's quote is from Williams (1976:13). To balance the picture, there is also a French tradition (centrally: Foucault), of which both Stierle (Germany) and Jay (U.S.A.) are aware. However, it seems fair to say that Stierle in 1978 is not aware of Williams, yet.

[xx] Three constituents give you a finite number of combinations if binary features (OK, NO) are applied and the order treated as irrelevant, as is the case in mere structural addition. The long version of the matrix is this (Pragma-Dialectical standards):

Abbildung in dieser Leseprobe nicht enthalten

[xxi] Hamblin lists etymology in the book's index, references the page above and the index-entry 'Figure of Speech' (p.320). Figure of Speech then refers you to 11 single pages distributed across a 300 page book.

[xxii] Cited after Hutton (1998), same as the following quote from Lyons.

[xxiii] Please take a second to look at Chrystal's last sentence that I separate into the relevant parts of speech and endow with agreement-features after the relevant terms:

[SENTENCE The common belief that [NP the etymology of a lexeme (UNSPECIFIED FOR NUMBER ] can be determined by investigating [NP[ ANAPHORIC PRONOUN their] origins (MARKED FOR PLURAL)]]].

Thus, the backward-referring anaphoric pronoun remains without a proper noun-phrase to agree with. And this is either a typo (he meant to write 'lexeme s ' or ' its origin') or Chrystal (somehow and implicitly) understands either etymology or lexeme (or etymology of a lexeme) to be a plural(istic) term, to begin with. Since this is not central, I suggest we take it to be a typo.

[xxiv] Right away, the objection is the following: French liberté is English liberty and German Liberalität and not English freedom and German Freiheit. But here, you are only looking at the surface form and state what is similar on the linguistic surface. Yet, what meanings the terms have and, in distinct (nation-cultural) developments have come to have, requires the sort of study that finds relatedness by coming from the side of the meaning and not from the side of the terms.

Note also, that a common European tradition of understanding the term freedom in contrast to an American tradition as I describe it here (free individual choice versus individual burden) contrasts distinctly with an Eastern or oriental tradition in which subjects comprehend their freedom as their contingency. Compare Northrop (1959, 19471) The Logic of the Sciences and the Humanities, especially the last four chapters, pp.328-399 and Northrop (1946), titled The Meeting of East and West.

Given the historic and substantial overlap of Popper's and Northrop's work, it seems worthwhile to compare their standpoints to eventually integrate what Popper offers in criticism of the Social Sciences and the Humanities with the solutions that Northrop offers. Northrop, and that seems crucial, has the cultural knowledge about the Orient that Popper lacks.

[xxv] When Kaptein speaks of 'just using the terms' we would technically translate that into 'just mentioning the terms' and retain 'use' for the referentially employed language use, although Kaptein is, of course, pointing to material changes in the body of particular laws and particular applications of these laws that simply do not change if the terms, in which the laws are phrased, were replaced.

But then, how is change brought about if not by enacting what the used term means, or shall we say demands?

Excerpt out of 60 pages


The Etymological Argument - Fallacy or Sound Move
University of Amsterdam  (Int. School for Humanities & Social Sciences)
Speech-Communication, Argumentation-Theory and Rhetorics
8,5 von 10, M.A. with honours
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
File size
546 KB
Bedeutung, meaning, Semantik, semantics, Etymologie, etymology, word origin, Wortherkunft, Argument, Essentialismus, essentialism, Popper, Pragma-Dialectic
Quote paper
Frank Zenker (Author), 2002, The Etymological Argument - Fallacy or Sound Move, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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