Monday, August 8, 2005

Twisting Words

Several years ago I read in a book on JRR Tolkien by Tom Shippey about a set of words with widely varying definitions but all of whom had or may have had etymological common ground. The words writhe, wraith, wreath, wroth, and wrath all share a the common notion of twisting. Respectively, they might be described as meaning: to twist in pain, a being that is twisted (inside, in his soul), a twisted branch for decoration, twisted with anger, and the state of being twisted with anger.

I was reminded of this little linguistic family the other night when gaetanus told me of a similar family of words in Syriac; so I did some actual looking-into and found much more than I bargained for. I looked through all the wr- words in Old English (J.R. Clark Hall et al., A Concise Anglo-Saxon Dictionary), and found a ton of words I deemed likely candidates for being related, so I grouped them as follow below (in no particular order). Question marks mean I wasn't sure, but was interested in learning more. No question marks mean I was pretty sure I would find a connection. Since I really love finding connections between words and roots, I have to constantly remind myself that just because I can see how words could be related doesn't mean they are (although my instincts generally serve me well).

Group 1: wriðan, to twist; gewriðelian, to bind; wriðels, bandage; gewriðing, binding; wriða, band, collar, ring; wræd, band, wreath; wrasen, band, tie, chain.

Group 2: wrað, wroth, furious, hostile, evil; wraðmod, angry; gewraðian, to be angry; wraðlic, grievous, severe, bitter; wræððo, wrath, anger, indignation; wræðan, to anger, get angry, be angry, resist violently.

?Group 3: wræne, unbridled, loose, lustful [so, I figured "morally twisted"]; wrænnes, luxury, lust, wantonness; wrænsa/wrænscipa, wantonnes; wrænsian, to be wanton.

?Group 4: wrid, shoot, plant, bush [I figured plants twist and turn--at least they were often portrayed thus ornamentally]; wridan, to grow, thrive; wridian, to grow, spring up; gewrid, thicket?, husk. Perhaps here also belongs wyrt/weort, plant, root (e.g., St. John's Wort).

Group 5: wrætt, ornament, work of art, jewel; wrættlic, artistic, ornamental, rare, wondrous [I included this because of the vague impression that most AS art seemed to be twisting or intertwining forms, along with the recollection of how they distinguished formed, ornamental gold (say, a ring) from raw gold, by calling the former 'twisted gold'. Cf. Group 8.]

Group 6: wrencan, to twist, spin intrigue, devise plots; wrenc, wile, deceit; modulation, melody.

Group 7: wringan, to wring, twist, squeeze, press out; wringe, (oil) press; gewring, liquor, drink; gewrinclian, to wind about.

Group 8: wræstan, to wrest, bend, twist, to be or make elegant; wræstlere, wræstliend, wrestler; wræstlic, pertaining to wrestling, delicate, elegant; wræstlung, wrestling, struggling.

?Group 9: wrixlan, to change, barter, exchange, lend; wrixl, exchange, barter; gewrixlung, change, loan; gewrixlic, alternating.

Group 10 [misc.]: wrigian, to go, turn, twist, struggle, press forward; wrist, wrist; wræðstudu, column, pillar (This works if they were usually adorned with twisting patterns); wreðian, to support, sustain, uphold; wraðu, prop, help, support, maintenance (the last two based on wræðstudu).

Finally, I also wrote down a few words thinking merely "wouldn't that be cool if these were related somehow, too": weorðan, to happen, become; wyrd, fate (>weird); weorð, worth, worthy (together with weorðscipa, worship).

Given these groups, I tried to imagine what common root they might all have come from (remember, I haven’t studied linguistics formally yet, and what follows are my own reconstructions). Based on patterns of sound change I’ve noticed throughout the Germanic languages and elsewhere, here’s what I came up with:

Start with a hypothesized root *wrenð. Subsume the nasal n into a lengthened vowel and you get *wrêð. That long ê could easily either open into wræð (Group 2) or close further into wrið (Group 1). From the former could have come wrætt (Group 5) by losing the aspiration of the final dental, and wræst (Group 8) by a sibilization of the same dental. Nasalizing the dental of Group 5 yields wræne (Group 3). Unaspirating the dental of Group 1 yields wrid (Group 4).

Alternatively, from the original root *wrenð, palatalize the final dental and you have wrenc (Group 6), sounding like ModEng. ‘wrench’. Subsume the nasal n into the vowel and give voice to the medial consonant, and you get something like wrigian (Group 10). Harden the ‘ch’ sound on wrenc to a ‘k’ or ‘g’ sound and you’re on your way to wring- (Group 7). The hardest to connect is wrixl- (Group 9); perhaps it came from a medial form *wrisc from *wrist, or perhaps wring followed the succession *wrig, *wrigs, *wrics (=wrix).

Having done all of this supposition and speculation, I recently found this family tree of words stemming from the IE root *wer-[2]. According to this outline, Indo-European *wer, with assorted final sounds, yielded the Germanic roots wrð/werð/wurð; wrið; *wurgjan; *wreng; *wrig; *wrihst-; *werp-; and *wurm.

In other words, not only are all my original ‘writhe’ words related, but I found whole new branches of the family: Wrong meant crooked or twisted. Worry originally meant to strangle (twist the neck). Weird, from OE wyrd, meant fate, or that which happens to one, from weorthan, to become or ‘turn’ into something. (So a ‘twist of fate’ is ultimately redundant.) And a worm is something that twists and writhes in the ground. And the long lost non-Germanic relatives of this family range from Latin vers-/vert-, to the Celtic root in briar, to Greek rhombus.

To wrap up, it may seem weird or even perverse that a conversation on the roots of so many words in prose and verse should be worth studying, but don’t worry, there’s nothing wrong with a little subversive wordplay among bookworms, as along as you divert the wrath of those who writhe at your introversion.


Frank said...

Wow! I'm just do bone-ass idle to have gone through all of that, but it's definitely fascinating. Thank you for your time, energy, and nerdiness! *hehehe*

King Alfred said...

thanks, frank, although to be honest it really wasn't work at all. Words do that to me all the time... I'll be reading, and suddenly my mind is halfway down paths like this before I even realize I've forgotten to take in the *meaning* of the text, and have to go back and read it again. (Of course, real philological work should ultimately serve meaning, not distract from it.)

newyorkunicycleblog said...

I stumbled upon your site because I was searching (on google) for the derivation of 'wr' words. I had figured out on my own that 'wr' words have to do with twisting, but I figured others must have done actual in-depth research on this idea, and sho'nuff, you had. Well done. I notice you don't include the word 'write,' tho I'd be surprised if it didn't merit inclusion.

Now, do you also have an idea about 'kn' and 'gn' words? They often seem connected with hands and with things coming together tightly: knuckle, knead, knife, knit, know (well, it's not too far-fetched), knap, gnarl, gnash, gnaw. Some have to do with knees: knickers (and related words).

I also have an explanation into the formation of the letter Q. Sources I've examined (on the 'net) are no help. Any ideas of your own for this? Please e-mail me if you can.


David Stone
Reading Teacher