Sunday, March 17, 2013

Russian Word Origins: Professional and Amateur Etymology

Some Russians, when talking about the Russian language, like to use examples of amateur linguistics or amateur etymologyAmateur etymology refers to the derivation of words using methods that are not based on the foundations of historical linguistics, but based instead on coincidences and personal, subjective interpretation (which may be subconsciously influenced by nationalism, political/religious views, etc). Amateur linguistics is essentially the same thing, but on a broader scale - that is, it deals with not only the origins of words (which is a very specific part of historical linguistics), but other areas of linguistics as well. 

Now, why am I writing about all this in my blog?  If you interact with Russians, you will notice that some of them are interested in telling you the "secret" or "mystical" origins of Russian words - origins that are based on amateur linguistics.  If you're a novice at Russian, you may be convinced that these are actually the true origins, and they might even help you remember the meaning of words.  But if you are planning to teach Russian or write a paper on Slavic linguistics, these "mystical" etymologies will not hold up, and you will not be taken seriously, because they have not been verified in the field of professional linguistics.  A little bit later in this post, I will talk about the word любовь (love) and an interesting etymology that I was told about.

First, a few links.  If you can read Russian, you should check out A. A. Zaliznyak's lecture from 2009 on the differences between professional and amateur linguistics - he also explains why amateur research is more prevalent in the fields of linguistics and foreign language learning than in other fields such as physics, chemistry, or biology.  The full text of the lecture is available on this site

Also take a look at Mikhail Zadornov's monologue about the Russian language, where he brings up a lot of examples of amateur etymology (I get the feeling that it is being done in a tongue-in-cheek sort of way).

I also want to mention a post that should be interesting even to people who don't study/understand Russian - it is a satirical post made by Mark Rosenfelder called "Deriving Proto-World with tools you probably have at home."  Rosenfelder's post makes it clear how easy it is to take a bunch of words and make it look like groups of linguistically unrelated words are actually related.

Back to Zaliznyak:  I am not going to provide an English translation for the entire lecture, but I do want to translate/paraphrase the very last section, where he gives some examples of how to recognize instances of amateur linguistics.

Excerpt from A. A. Zaliznyak, "About Professional and Amateur Linguistics"

I will finish by pointing out some simple signs, according to which any reader will be able to immediately tell that the information presented is not an essay about language on the academic level, but on the amateur level. 

An essay about the Russian language is on the amateur level if at least one of the following occurs:
  • The author explains that one word came from another word by claiming that "Sound A can turn into Sound B."  (That is, with no restrictions on the languages or time periods involved.)
  • The author claims that "vowels bear no meaning, and only the "consonant skeleton" carries any importance."
  • The author claims that "Word A came about as a result of reading Word B backwards."
  • The author tries to prove etymology by taking an ancient inscription from another country and reading the letters as if they were Russian (Cyrillic) letters.
  • The author claims that Name A of a city or river of a distant country is simply a distorted version of Russian Word B.  (When the country, on the contrary, was never populated or controlled by Russians).
  • The author claims that an ancient language derives from Russian (specifically the modern version of Russian as it is used in the present day).
  • The author claims that 3,000/5,000/10,000/70,000/ years ago, Russians (specifically Russians, not their biological ancestors), did so-and-so.

Of course, these are not the only ways one can recognize instances of amateur linguistics.  If you have a background in linguistics or have access to dictionaries with etymological information (such as Wiktionary of Vasmer's Online Dictionary, which I will be linking to below), you will have the tools to determine whether a given statement about a Russian word is based on amateur linguistics or professional linguistics. 

Now, on to the word любовь (love).  In amateur linguistics, there exists an idea that любовь is actually an abbreviation of three words - люди Бога ведают.  Sometimes I wonder who thought it up, and how it became popular.

I think there are a few factors that influenced the popularity of this particular etymology.  The first factor is that the word спасибо, one of the most important words in Russian, has an etymology that actually does derive from an abbreviation (спаси тебя Бог), and this etymology is attested in official sources.  The second factor is that since 1917, the Russian language has been filled with terms (many of them related to political bodies or official institutions) that are derived from abbreviations.  Many of these kinds of words are most closely associated with communism and/or the Soviet Union (e.g. колхоз, совхоз, политбюро), but many of these are still in use today (универмаг, филфак).

These factors show that this syllable-based form of derivation is not alien to the Russian language.  But some people take this information and jump to the conclusion that all Russian words must be derived this way.  Even after being shown academic sources like Vasmer's Etymological Dictionary, some (not all) Russians believe that the etymologies provided by Vasmer are not the "true" or "real" etymologies of these words, and that the "true" etymology of all Russian words is found by looking at the letters and syllables themselves.

So, beware of these etymologies!  Here is some information on the word's true origins.  Here are other Russian words that derive from the same root (this comes from George Z. Patrick's Roots of the Russian Language, the hyphens are there just to show the separation of the lexical root люб from other morphological parts).

люб-езность - kindness, courtesy
люб-итель - lover, amateur, layman
люб-ительский - amateur, amateurish
люб-ить - to love, like
люб-оваться - to admire
люб-ой - any, whichever one likes
раз-люб-ить - to become indifferent, to cease to love

The Wiktionary entry on любовь (which takes its etymology information from Vasmer) lists the etymology as follows:
Происходит от праслав. формы, от которой в числе прочего произошли: др.-русск., ст.-слав. любъ (др.-греч. ποθεινός), русск. любо, любой, любый «дорогой», укр. любий, словенск. ljȗb, ljúbа ж., чешск. libý «милый, любимый, приятный», стар. ľubý, польск., в.-луж., н.-луж. luby. Отсюда любовь ж., укр. любов, др.-русск., ст.-слав. любы (род. п. любъве, др.-греч. ἀγάπη), сербохорв. љуби, љубав, словенск. ljubȃv ж. «любовь». Родственно лит. liaupsė̃ «почет; хвалебная песнь», liáupsinti «восхвалять», др.-инд. lúbhyati «желает», lōbhas «желание, жажда», lōbháyati «возбуждает желание», готск. liufs, др.-в.-нем. liob «дорогой, милый»; с другим вокализмом: др.-в.-нем. lоb ср. р. «хвала», готск. lubains ж. «надежда», galaubjan «верить», оск. loufir «vel», лат. lubet, libet «угодно», lubīdō, libīdō «(страстное) желание», алб. lарs «желаю, жажду». Русск. любодей, прелюбодей заимств. из церк.-слав.: ст.-слав. любы дѣІАти, прѣлюбы дѣІАти — стар. вин. п. ед. ч. от любы.
 And now let's look at the etymology of the English word love, also shown on Wiktionary:
From Middle English love, luve, from Old English lufu ("love, affection, desire"), from Proto-Germanic *lubō (love), from Proto-Indo-European *lewbʰ-, *leubʰ- (love, care, desire). Cognate with Old Frisian luve ("love"), Old High German luba ("love"). Related to Old English lēof ("dear, beloved"), līefan ("to allow, approve of"), Latin libet, lubō ("to please") and Albanian lyp ("to beg, ask insistently"), lips ("to be demanded, needed"), Serbo-Croatian ljubiti, ljubav, Russian любовь, любить.

The truth of the matter is that любовь is etymologically related to English love, German Liebe (love), and Latin libīdō (pleasure, inclination, fancy, longing - which is where the English term libido comes from).  There is nothing here about "люди Бога ведают".


  1. Hey this is Cesare M. Very nice and informative post. :)

  2. Thanks for the post. I love Zaliznyak lectures! I found this post looking exactly for this - etymology of the word "любить". Wiki does not provide complete info (I did not look up "любовь"), but suspected that it actually comes from Latin "libet".

  3. Thanks for the post. I love Zaliznyak lectures! I found this post looking exactly for this - etymology of the word "любить". Wiki does not provide complete info (I did not look up "любовь"), but suspected that it actually comes from Latin "libet".

  4. Would you please throw some light on the etymology of хорошо?

  5. Would you please throw some light on the etymology of хорошо?