Words with unknown meaning
Posted: 15 May 2010 12:45 AM   [ Ignore ]
RankRankRank
Total Posts:  267
Joined  2007-02-20

My modestly sized Latin dictionary contains words with unknown meaning. It appears reasonable that most of them are names of animals or plants which can no longer be identified with certainty. The masculinum (!) gugga of supposedly Punic origin, however, is shown without any hint whatsoever of a possible meaning. Does this phenomenon exist in English, too?

Profile
 
 
Posted: 15 May 2010 01:06 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  3136
Joined  2007-02-26

It would be an odd situation if there were words in modern English with uncertain meaning.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 15 May 2010 05:01 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
Avatar
RankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  1190
Joined  2007-02-14

There’s a difference between a word that has an uncertain meaning and one for which we are uncertain of its meaning.  Certainly there will be words in a dead language which are rare enough that we are uncertain as to their meaning.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 15 May 2010 06:49 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  3136
Joined  2007-02-26

"There’s a difference between a word that has an uncertain meaning and one for which we are uncertain of its meaning. “

(scratches head) Yeah? I would have thought those two phrases to be synonymous. Elucidate, please.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 15 May 2010 07:02 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
Administrator
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  4790
Joined  2007-01-03

There are certainly Old English words which we do not understand. These are often hapax legomena (singular appearances of a word).

Sometimes they are decipherable, but there are questions about them. One notable example is ælfscinu, which most notably appears in the poem Judith (There are two other appearances of the word in the Junius manuscript poem Genesis A.) The word is literally “elf-shining,” and clearly has a denotation of beautiful. But the ælf- connotes something supernatural and perhaps deceptive or delusive. Exactly what the poet was aiming for when he labels Judith with the word is uncertain.

Occasionally, you find such words in modern English as well. You can’t help but trip over them in Joyce’s Ulysses, for example. Science fiction often creates words with only a vague and uncertain meaning.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 25 December 2011 11:14 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
Avatar
Rank
Total Posts:  5
Joined  2011-10-30
Dave Wilton - 15 May 2010 07:02 AM

There are certainly Old English words which we do not understand. These are often hapax legomena (singular appearances of a word).

Sometimes they are decipherable, but there are questions about them. One notable example is ælfscinu, which most notably appears in the poem Judith (There are two other appearances of the word in the Junius manuscript poem Genesis A.) The word is literally “elf-shining,” and clearly has a denotation of beautiful. But the ælf- connotes something supernatural and perhaps deceptive or delusive. Exactly what the poet was aiming for when he labels Judith with the word is uncertain.

Occasionally, you find such words in modern English as well. You can’t help but trip over them in Joyce’s Ulysses, for example. Science fiction often creates words with only a vague and uncertain meaning.

I think folks overthink this one. When I first read the line, ides ælfscinu, I smiled. I only wondered how beautiful a lady needed to be to be described by the poet as elfsheen (ælfscinu). Even tho the word is an adjective, the placement of it in the poem lends a better interpretation as “Lady of Elfish-beauty”. Most legends paint the Elves as the most beautiful race. OE used “elfen” to gloss nymph as in wuduelfen ... wood nymph or dryad. So if she had the beauty of an Elfen, then would not any normal man be beguiled by her? Do we not have women today that use their “elfsheen” to wrap men around their fingers? I’m sure that Judith knew how to that well.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 25 December 2011 12:32 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
Avatar
RankRankRank
Total Posts:  429
Joined  2007-02-14

This doesn’t have to be significant for the meaning of the word ‘elf’ in the Old English period, but its Middle Dutch cognate ‘alf’ was used to refer to an evil spirit. It bears a connotation of deceit and nightmares. Cf. NHG Albtraum “nightmare”. Referring to a person with this word doesn’t have to a positive thing.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 25 December 2011 06:51 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  3136
Joined  2007-02-26

Thanks for revitalising this, AnWulf ... I didn’t get an answer to my question.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 25 December 2011 08:33 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
Avatar
RankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  1190
Joined  2007-02-14

To elucidate for OP, a word with uncertain meaning would be one where the native speakers of the language did not have a generally accepted agreement as to the meaning of the word.  An example in English might be disinterested.  A word that we are uncertain about its meaning would be one that native speakers were in complete agreement about but which an outsider has little if any clue as to the meaning.  An example could be the Latin gugga.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 25 December 2011 08:34 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  2853
Joined  2007-01-31

Dutchtoo, the same ambiguity can be found in the history of the word in English.  Consider this etymology (from MWO) of oaf:
alteration of auf, alfe goblin’s child, probably from Middle English alven, elven elf, fairy, from Old English elfen nymphs; akin to Old English ælf elf.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 26 December 2011 12:41 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  3136
Joined  2007-02-26

To elucidate for OP, a word with uncertain meaning would be one where the native speakers of the language did not have a generally accepted agreement as to the meaning of the word.
--

I wouldn’t call that a word with uncertain meaning. I’d call that a word with a range of meanings.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 26 December 2011 02:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
Avatar
RankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  2032
Joined  2007-02-19

Old English elfen nymphs

Is “nymph” really an adequate modern equivalent of “elf”? I am not comfortable with it. Nymphs in classical mythology were invariably female (many were sexual prey to Zeus, that incorrigible D.O.G.*) --- is this true of elves? I have always thought of elves as being a whole non-human species or genus ("little people” à la Puck of Pook’s Hill) with all sorts of associated sub-divisions (fairies, goblins, hobgoblins, trolls, etc.) deriving from a variety of cultures. I realize this is a complicated subject—I don’t know much about it and would appreciate others’ input.

* (D.O.G. = Dirty Old God)

[ Edited: 26 December 2011 02:33 AM by lionello ]
Profile
 
 
Posted: 26 December 2011 07:58 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  3525
Joined  2007-01-29

I have always thought of elves as being a whole non-human species or genus

You are talking about Modern English, of which you are a speaker and with respect to which your intuitions are valid.  The quote is about Old English, a language I’m guessing you do not know.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 26 December 2011 11:20 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  2853
Joined  2007-01-31

I inadvertently failed to italicize elfen, but I think it’s still clear that “nymphs” is the (or, more likely, a) sense of the word in Old English, and as LH points out, this does not imply that “elf” and “nymph” are synonymous in modern English.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 26 December 2011 01:14 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 14 ]
Avatar
RankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  2032
Joined  2007-02-19

clearer now - thank you both.

And a Happy and Prosperous New Year to all participants in this forum, regardless of race, religion, age, sex, colour, national origin, shoe size, species, or absolutely anything else....I think of you all affectionately, as my friends. Thank you for being out there.

Profile
 
 
Posted: 26 December 2011 04:57 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 15 ]
Administrator
Avatar
RankRankRankRankRank
Total Posts:  4790
Joined  2007-01-03

Most legends paint the Elves as the most beautiful race. OE used “elfen” to gloss nymph as in wuduelfen ... wood nymph or dryad.

I think you’re reading too much Tolkien into the actual mythology. Elves are portrayed in a wide variety of ways in various legends, mostly not all that beautiful—at least to human eyes. Typically they are misshapen tricksters.

And the Anglo-Saxons were generally ignorant of classical scholarship and mythology. The word wuduælfenne appears only once in the OE corpus, as a gloss to the Latin oreades. From this we can probably conclude that the Anglo-Saxons had no idea what a nymph was, and the glossarist was using the concept that came closest.

And with ælfscinu, I said that the general meaning was clearly “beautiful,” but the exact connotations the audience would have understood are unclear to us, perhaps “deceptive” or “divine.” The word appears three times in the OE corpus: twice in the poem Genesis A in reference to Sarah, and once in Judith in reference to the title character.

Profile
 
 
   
 
 
‹‹ I am Greek Catholic      The suffix -ly ››