Tuesday, 22 February 2011

etymology woo

I'm a big fan of comic book writer Grant Morrison. Ever since I read Doom Patrol twenty years ago I've been hooked on his chaotic, eclectic style. I love his superheroes-fighting-in-the-sky-like-fireworks version of the JLA, and The Invisibles is the greatest thing ever. So I was interested in the talk he did with Deepak Chopra at Comic-con 2006, on "the seven spiritual laws of superheroes". Unfortunately, I only made it about three minutes in before Chopra said something that annoyed me:

The word myth in English comes from or is related to the word mother. Myth, mother, mater, meter, matter, time, music, mata, matrika, measurement, they're all the same word. They refer to the womb of creation.

He says the same thing on the twitter. It's completely untrue, but what bugs me more is that it's so easily checked. Take the Online Etymology Dictionary, a free online reference - it isn't authoritative but it's a very good place to start if you want to check things like this. The words mother, Latin māter "mother", Sanskrit māta and mātr̥kā "mother", and possibly matter are related to each other, from Proto-Indo-European *māter-. The words measure and meter are related to each other, from Proto-Indo-European *meh₁-. music is from *men- to think". time is from *deh₂- "to divide". The origin of myth is unknown.

I guess I know how this guy feels when Chopra says something silly about genetics or medicine.


Glen Gordon said...

I find it funny how so many people will discuss something without googling too. Chalk it up to our human imperfection or lazy apathy I guess.

We know at least that 'myth' is from Greek μῦθος referring to any word, speech or utterance and similar to Latin muttum 'utterance'. Naturally myths, in the sense of legends, are stories passed down by word of mouth. Perhaps there's a hidden loanword behind this.

Anonymous said...

I would respectfully suggest that the good doctor has provided a very plausible etymology for all of the words in question. His postulation raises interesting issues for etymologists and historical linguistics. Specifically, can a relationship be postulated between *māter- and *meh₁- 'think, measure' and *men- to think"?

I have treated this in some depth here on my blog, input is appreciated.

We should enjoy the discussion and savor the puzzle.

Thanks Glen for pointing out that mythos might be tied to Latin muttum and thus Pokorny 751-752.

Also many thanks to this excellent blog for raising such fascinating issues in historical linguistics and providing a forum for discussion.

goofy said...

That's pretty cool, actually it's very cool. Thanks for continuing the discussion. But I would like to know if the doctor knew any of the connections you make, or if he just got lucky.

Anonymous said...

I don't know whether the doctor shares our interest in comparative reconstruction. Your question may be better answered by a follower of his. However, from my limited experience listening to his lectures, I can confirm that he has a proven interest in English literature and language, as well as Sanskrit philology. In addition, he appears to have been exploring the concept of "Primordial Sound", which may have implications for phonosemantics. BTW, any news on that front?

I would not be shocked to find out that he indeed pursues an avid private study of historical linguistics similar to that of readers of this blog. Alternatively, he may have 'sensed' the connections I make on my blog intuitively (in all seriousness).

I am surprised that no one has tried to hierarchically link a lot of the seemingly related Pokorny roots. Maybe someone has, or maybe that is a task that remains to us :)

Saif said...

Chopraphagia: the tendency to swallow any old shit as long as it's uttered by some mystic masseur.

Anonymous said...

We cannot help you until you tell us what is bothering you.

If you are bothered by the fact that the qualitative difference between meh1 and meh2 has not been adequately explained, you should let us know.

If you are concerned about endocrinology, you should ask someone that can help you better. This is not a medical forum.

I'll let you guys know when I come up with a more thorough treatment of the vowels, which I understand to be at issue here. Also, all of us have so far failed to reference a published academic work refuting the etymology in question. I will search for one.

goofy said...

It's true I haven't referenced a published academic work refuting the etymology, but Chopra hasn't provided a reference supporting his claim. I am skeptical that there is one, but I'd love to be corrected.