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date: 26 April 2017

Etymology in Romance

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Linguistics. Please check back later for the full article.

Within the field of linguistics, etymology is the only subdiscipline that is uniquely historical in its study of the relevant linguistic data. It is one of the oldest fields in Romance linguistics. The scholar credited with establishing Romance linguistics as a scholarly discipline, Friedrich Diez (1794–1876) authored both the first comparative Romance historical grammar (his three-volume Grammatik der Romanischen Sprachen [1836–1844]) and the first pan-Romance etymological dictionary (his Etymologisches Wörterbuch der Romanischen Sprachen [1853]). A similar combination, illustrating the indissoluble link between etymology and historical grammar (especially the study of sound change), can be seen in the work of Wilhelm Meyer-Lübke (1861–1936), author of a four-volume Grammatik der Romanischen Sprachen (1890–1902) and of the last complete pan-Romance etymological dictionary, the Romanisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch (3d definitive edition, 1935).

The concept of etymology as practiced by Romanists has changed over the last 100 years. At the outset, Romance etymologists took as their brief the search for and identification of individual word origins. Starting in the early 20th century, various specialists began to view etymology as the preparation of the complete history of all facets of the evolution over time and space of the words or lexical families under study. Identification of the underlying base was only the first step in the process. From this perspective, etymology constitutes an essential element of diachronic lexicology, which covers all formal, semantic, and syntactic facets of a word’s evolution, including, if appropriate, the circumstances leading to its demise and replacement.

Practitioners of Romance etymology tend to study the history of individual words or word families in specific Romance languages rather than across the entire family. Almost every Romance language and many of their regional varieties have at least one etymological dictionary devoted to the history of its vocabulary (or at least to the identification of relevant word origins), the most notable being such multi-volumed works as the Französisches Etymologisches Wörterbuch (1922–2002), the Lessico Etimilogico Italiano (1979–), the Diccionario crítico etimológico castellano e hispánico (1980–1991), and the Diccionari etimològic i complimenari de la llengua catalana (1980–2001). The last complete pan-Romance dictionary remains the afore-cited third edition of Meyer-Lübke’s Romanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch.

Although originally coined as a riposte to the Neogrammarian view of sound change, Jules Gilliéron’s (1854–1926) dictum, “each word has its own history,” applies equally well to etymology. Yakov Malkiel (1914–1998), one of the leading writers on questions of method and practice in Romance etymology, has discussed the unique and complex nature of etymological solutions. As a result of the emphasis on individual problems and solutions, Romance etymology has not lent itself to the formulation of theories on the nature of lexical change, although there was in the past no shortage of literature on questions of methodology.

Although specialists continue to work on language-specific etymological questions, etymology is not currently at the forefront of work in Romance historical linguistics, a situation that may result, in part, from its lack of engagement with broad theoretical issues. Most studies still appear in the form of journal articles or Festschrift contributions. There is currently underway a new pan-Romance project, the Dictionnaire étymologique Roman (DéRom), with a new (and controversial) methodological underpinning, namely the rigorous application to the Romance data of comparative reconstruction to capture more accurately the phonological and morphological reality of proto-Romance (in essence a register of spoken Latin) and the semantic scope of the etymological base. This project has reawakened an interest in Romance etymology among a new generation of Romanists. Indeed, to remain vital and relevant within the framework of Romance linguistics, etymology must go beyond the details of individual lexical histories and make an effort to link its findings to our understanding of the nature and processes of language change.