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Anatoly Liberman

Anatoly Liberman

The hidden history of words

A Q&A with 'intellectual omnivore' Anatoly Liberman

By Kermit Pattison

From eNews, Feb. 8, 2007

Anatoly Liberman, professor in the Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch, was born in Leningrad in 1937 in the Stalinist Soviet Union. His father was drafted into the Soviet army and died fighting on the Leningrad front. After the war, his mother worked as a music teacher and they survived with the financial help of a relative who was a well-known eye surgeon.

He was educated in Soviet schools and colleges and spent 10 years as a research fellow at the Academy of Sciences of the USSR in Leningrad before emigrating in 1975.

Liberman has spent 31 years at the University of Minnesota, where he has taught more than 30 different courses, including historical linguistics, the history of all the Germanic languages (from Gothic and Old Norse to Middle High German and Old Frisian), runic inscriptions, Germanic heroic poetry, German folklore, Scandinavian mythology and the theory and practice of translation. For the past 20 years, he has been writing an etymological dictionary of the English language.

Liberman is an engaging, witty scholar who can entertain both popular audiences and academics. He is the author of Word Origins... and How We Know Them: Etymology for Everyone (Oxford University Press, 2005); a weekly blog for Oxford University Press; and close to 500 publications, ranging from "Prephonological Views on Germanic Syllable Accents" to "A Cobweb of Dwarves and Dweebs."

Do people ever remark on the irony of an etymological dictionary of English being written by a non-native speaker? LIBERMAN: As far as the history of words is concerned, one doesn't have to be a native speaker. If one reaches a stage at which one can write well, problems don't arise. My weekly column is called "The Oxford Etymologist," and I don't think it shocks my readers to see a typical Russian first name at its head more than it shocks them to see Vladimir Nabokov's name on the title page of famous novels. After all, this is the United States of America, where a Russian Jew teaching in a department of German, Scandinavian, and Dutch can feel perfectly at home while he is working on an etymological dictionary of English.

Why is a new etymological dictionary of English needed? LIBERMAN: English etymological dictionaries don't say with sufficient clarity that the origin of most words is controversial. And yet the business of such dictionaries is exactly this--to state what is known and what is not known about the origin of words and to cite the literature on the subject. Excellent etymological dictionaries have been put together for all the major European languages but surprisingly, not for English; surprisingly, because thanks to the Oxford English Dictionary English lexicography (the making and editing of a dictionary) occupies a place of honor.

The latest good work in this genre appeared in 1910. It offers a highly professional discussion of the origin of words but gives no references and does not concentrate as much as necessary on the debatable part of etymology. So I decided that the time had come to write such a dictionary. This was about 20 years ago. With the help of many paid assistants and volunteers, I worked like a slave chained to a galley. I had no illusions about the magnitude of my project. You have probably seen a common statement in prefaces: "If I had known how much time and effort it would take, I would not have started this enterprise."

What makes etymology an interesting subject? LIBERMAN: Everything in our world leaves a trace in language. If you know the history of language and understand the main forces that make language change, you have one of the most important windows into the growth of the human mind, civilization and even politics. Take any word, from guitar to democracy. While studying their development, we inevitably learn a good deal about music and the rise of social institutions. And only the history of language is able to reveal the history of thought, for, unfortunately, an examination of the gray matter in our heads is not sufficient for that purpose. Let me repeat: There is nothing in the man-made world that is not reflected in language.

How about your work in Scandinavian myths?

LIBERMAN: There are many points in common between mythology and historical linguistics, for both entail reconstruction. The researcher faces disjointed traces and tries to visualize the picture as it once existed. This is detective work, not unlike what is described in a thriller: a novel by Agatha Christie or a tale by Arthur Conan Doyle.

The stories that have come down to us as ancient myths are sometimes well preserved and clear, but frequently they are obscure. Only one version of a myth may be extant; other times many versions are known, and we have to decide which of them to trust and which is the oldest. Investigating the origin of a myth and the origin of a word are similar processes, and this is what united my study of folklore, myths and etymology. Regardless of whether I deal with linguistics, literature or oral tradition, I try to get to the beginning of things.

--Excerpted from GSD (the magazine of the Department of German, Scandinavian & Dutch), fall 2006