Long words

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I'm in Hamburg for lectures and meetings this week.

The first day I was here, in the afternoon I went out for a walk.  After taking about 50 steps from the front door of my hotel, I saw this lettering on the glass facade of a nearby building:

"Rechtswissenschaftliche Fakultät".

My feet were glued to the ground.  I just looked up at that big, long word and pondered.  "Hmmmm," I thought to myself.  "How would we say that in English?"

"'Law Faculty' or 'Faculty of Law.'"

That made me even more unwilling to move on.

For the next few minutes I just stood there processing in my mind the difference between "Law Faculty" and "Rechtswissenschaftliche Fakultät".  Of course, one could also say "Juristische Fakultät" or "Recht Fakultät" in German, but here at the University of Hamburg, they chose to say  "Rechtswissenschaftliche Fakultät".  I kept thinking to myself, "What are the epistemological implications of saying it that way?  How are they conceiving or law when they use such a big, complicated word?  And how are we understanding jurisprudence when we use such a tiny word as 'law'?"

Although "law" is only three letters long, it carries a deep background of understanding about legal matters that orients lawyers and jurists in a particular way that must be very different from what people think of when they talk about "Rechtswissenschaft" ("right" + "science"). From the Online Etymological Dictionary:

Old English lagu (plural laga, combining form lah-) "ordinance, rule prescribed by authority, regulation; district governed by the same laws;" also sometimes "right, legal privilege," from Old Norse *lagu "law," collective plural of lag "layer, measure, stroke," literally "something laid down, that which is fixed or set" from Proto-Germanic *lagam "put, lay," from PIE root *legh- "to lie, lay" (from PIE root *legh- "to lie down, lay"). Identical with lay (n.2) as "that which is set or established."

Rare in Old English, it ousted the more usual ae and also gesetnes, which also were etymologically "something placed or set." Compare also statute, from Latin statuere; German Gesetz "law," from Old High German gisatzida; Lithuanian įstatymas, from įstatyti "set up, establish."

In physics, "a proposition which expresses the regular order of things," from 1660s. Law and orderhave been coupled since 1796. To lay down the law (1752) is pleonastic (the "law" in the figure is biblical law, laid down from the pulpit). Poor laws provided for the support of paupers at public expense; sumptuary laws restrained excesses in apparel, food, or luxuries.

It is more common for Indo-European languages to use different words for "a specific law" and for "law" in the general sense of "institution or body of laws," for example Latin lex "a law," ius "a right," especially "legal right, law." Words for "a law" are most commonly from verbs for "to put, place, set, lay," such as Greek thesmos (from tithemi "to put, place"), Old English dom (from PIE *dhe- "to put, place, set"), Lithuanian įstatymas (from statyti "cause to stand, set"), Polish ustawa (from stać"stand").

Words for "law" in the general sense mostly mean etymologically "what is right" and often are connected with adjectives for "right" (themselves often figurative uses of words for "straight," "upright," "true," "fitting," or "usage, custom." Such are Greek nomos (numismatic); French droit, Spanish derecho, from Latin directus; Polish prawo, Russian pravo (from Old Church Slavonic pravŭ"straight," in the daughter languages "right"); also Old Norse rettr, Old English riht, Dutch recht, German Recht (see right (adj.1)).

I also contemplated another three letter word in our legal tradition, lex, but that is a Latinate term that is completely separate from "law", so I won't go into it here.

Finally, a law student came out from the Rechtswissenschaftliche Fakultät building and approached me, as though she wanted to help me, and that rescued me from my reverie.

"What were you thinking of?" she asked.  I told her that I was just thinking of how short "law" is and how long "Rechtswissenschaftliche" is, and of all that that implies.

She reflected for a moment and then said with a smile, "That's what makes us German.  We're famous for our long words."

I collected myself and walked fifty more steps down the street where I was amused by this sign on another building:

Though we'd probably usually say "dental hygiene" (Latin + Greek) for this in English, we could also say "dental prophylaxis", which also consists of a Latin-derived word and a Greek-derived word.  Somehow, the bonding of Germanic "Zahn-" with Greek "- prophylaxe" into a single, longish Modern German word charmed me more than "dental hygiene" or "dental prophylaxis".

I bought a cup of tea and then headed back to my hotel.  When I got to Johnsallee where my hotel was located, I noticed this street sign:

Whoa, whoa!  Wow, wow!  That's a mouthful for one word and a lot of letters to pack on to one street sign.

I could tell by taking one look at it that "Rothenbaumchaussee" most likely means "Red Tree Street", but there are two peculiarities of the spelling that struck me when I first saw the name.  My knowledge of German language history is not good enough to explain the niceties of the spelling of the first part of this street name, but it is significant that the word for "red" ends with "-th" rather than the "-t" it has in modern German.  Moreover, it appears in its declined form, which must reflect an original "am Rothenbaum" ("at / on Red Tree").

Here, in the name "Rothenbaumchaussee", the "red tree" actually refers to a "red beam", i.e., a red customs barrier that could be lowered across the road to control traffic.  Note that German "baum" and English "beam" are clearly cognate.

So here we have two very German sounding terms for "red" and "tree/beam" at the beginning of this long street name, but then comes "chaussee", a word that strikes me as very French sounding.  In my travels in Germany over the decades, from time to time I've noticed this unusual feature of some German street names and wondered why it was so, but it's only now that I'm staying next to Rothenbaumchaussee that I've decided to determine the reason, and here it is (from Wikipedia):

The German word Chaussee was borrowed from the French chaussée by the German construction industry in the 18th century. The French word, in turn, went back to the Gallo-Romanic via calciata and meant a road surfaced with firmly compacted crushed rock bound with lime. Contemporary German translations of the word were Straßendamm ("road embankment") and Hochweg ("high way") and even the roughly similar English word, highway. Around 1790, Adelung complained that "Several new authors have proposed German names but these expressions "do not capture the concept either, and may be used for every other type of artificial way [Kunststraße]." The word Kunststraße ("artificial road") then established itself but, in the main, the French word entered the German language as a loanword.

Today many road names end in -chaussee. Hamburg has retained the term in its street names (Elbchaussee, Eimsbüttler Chaussee etc.), Berlin likewise (Potsdamer Chaussee, Johannisthaler Chaussee), whilst in Bremen in 1914, the chaussees were renamed, following a decision by its citizens, as Heerstraßen (literally "military roads"). In Aachen and Münster/W. the term Steinweg ("stone way") is used instead. This also occurs in Flemish as steenweg.

Each language has its own genius, and it's all the more fascinating when they blend with each other and are compared one to the other.  How could one ever be bored?

[Thanks to Kai Vogelsang for information on the "red beam" and to Zhenzhen Lu for the photographs]


  1. mike said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 12:30 am

    baum/beam … also the word "boom" (from sailing), from Dutch.

    This is an experience I've also had that I wonder how many other people share–when one isn't a native speaker of a language, and consequently one has to actually think about morphology, these types of interesting constructs and associations just pop out. As the example of "dental prophylaxis" shows, we often have equally interesting words in our native language, but we generally aren't as charmed by them, since I guess we're used to those words.

  2. Keith said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 12:51 am

    That word "beam", cognate of "Baum" and "boom", appears in the English name of a couple of trees: hornbeam (Carpinus betulus) and whitebeam (Sorbus aria).

    While looking up the binomials of those two, I found the amusing story that could have been one of Kipyard's "Just So" stories: the no parking whitebeam (Sorbus admonitor).


  3. Bruce Rusk said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 1:43 am

    Wouldn't a fuller Englishing of Rechtswissenschaftliche Fakultät be "Faculty of Legal Studies"? It's interesting how terms for fields of study in English may or may not require an indication of their nature in the name, and can even vary from institution to institution: Asian Studies, Biology, Political Science, vs Government, Physics, English, Classics, etc. In some languages, e.g. Chinese, the indication that this is a field of study is absolutely required (某某學).

  4. J.W. Brewer said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 6:17 am

    In a U.S. academic context a scholar might have the job title "Professor of Chinese" at one university but "Professor of East Asian Languages and Literature" at another, which is a striking difference in syllable count even if EAL&L isn't orthographically presented allasoneword. I'm not sure if the reason American legal academics tend to be professors of "law" rather than e.g. "jurisprudential studies" is meaningful or just a contingent historical accident. Come to think of it, an advanced degree occasionally conferred by U.S. law schools is the J.S.D., which glossed literally from the Latin would be something like "Doctor of Juridical Science," with "Juridical Science" being a pretty good analogue to Rechtswissenschaft.

  5. Mark Meckes said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 7:51 am

    I would say the difference between "Recht" and "Rechtswissenschaft" is almost exactly analogous to the difference between "Law" and "Legal Studies".

    Incidentally, the standard translation of "Wissenschaft" as "science" has always driven me crazy. "Wissenschaft" encompasses scholarly studies of all kinds, whereas "science" in English is usually understood to refer to a narrower ranger of fields, including the "natural sciences" (Naturwissenschaften) and "social sciences" (Sozialwissenschaften), but decidedly excluding the humanities (Geisteswissenschaften).

  6. languagehat said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 8:10 am

    In Russian, шоссе [shossé] (neuter, indeclinable) is a standard word for 'highway'; it's not clear whether it was borrowed from German or directly from French. Being clearly a foreign borrowing (e.g., the -s- is not palatalized — it's pronounced as if written шоссэ), it once had a full complement of dialect forms adapted to fit the Russian palate: shashá, sashá, sashé, shafá, shashá. I have no idea if any of them are still in use in the provinces.

  7. languagehat said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 8:12 am

    (Oops, the last dialect form should be shakhá. Damn this lack of preview!)

  8. Lewis said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 8:53 am

    I noticed the other road sign: Johnsallee. It looks like John's Alley, but Google gives "avenue" as the translation of "allee", but was that borrowed from English or from French or both? From the French aller?

  9. monscampus said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 9:09 am

    From French "aller" and Latin *ambulare*. When I was young, "Chaussee" was more common, though. Trees are the most important feature.
    Please cf.
    https://www.duden.de/rechtschreibung/Allee -> Herkunft

  10. julie lee said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 9:53 am

    English has a lot of names for a street. ""Street, road, way, drive, avenue, route, boulevard, circle, court", some of them of German, some of French, derivation.

    A few months ago I moved to this town in the American Midwest. Since then I've had occasion to think about the name of my street, ____Boulevard. Something about the "Boulevard".

    The dictionary says "a boulevard is a wide road in a town or city, usually lined with trees". My street, a two-lane road in a very small rural town, runs through many acres of rural land dotted here and there by modest, low, small, dwellings. Very little of it is lined by trees. Both ends of the "Boulevard" face farm-fields. To me, "Boulevard" is much too grand a name for this road. It is amusingly pretentious, and misleading.

  11. John Shutt said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 9:56 am

    On the phenomenon of long German words, I've a story from my mother, of a discussion in Germany more than sixty years ago, where they'd had some difficulty making themselves understood by their local hosts because they'd used an idiom, and this led to a lengthy digression on how to translate "idiom" into German. After some time working out what concept was intended, the local hosts arrived at "feststehendegesichte".

  12. Michael Koplow said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 10:23 am

    The real question is why it isn't "Rechtswissenschaftsfakultät." I mean, if the idea is to conserve spaces.

  13. ~flow said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 10:39 am

    Wikipedia has a nice, informative piece on the Rothenbaumchaussee at https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rothenbaumchaussee. I'd have wrongly thought it to be named after one Mr. Rothenbaum; turns out it's derives, as you write, from a red beam that once, presumably, belonged to a customs stop. Analogous names exist in Berlin as Oberbaum and Unterbaum, which were barriers across the river where it enters and leaves the city; the beams were used to make sure no ships could enter or leave the city between dusk and dawn without paying duties (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oberbaum; also, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Berlin_Customs_Wall).

    An indeed quite unusual thing about Rothenbaumchausse and the corresponding borough, Rotherbaum, is that not only the otherwise obsolete spelling -th- is retained, but also the adjective is both written together with the noun and declined (as far as I know, you'd say 'am Rothenbaum' rather than ?'in Rothenbaum' or *'in Rotherbaum'). I can't readily think of other names that work like that; normally you have either declination and two orthographic words or a single word with no internal, live declination.

  14. ~flow said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 10:41 am

    @Michael Koplow I really like the Rechtswissenschaftsfakultätsgebäudeaufnahme.

  15. BZ said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 10:46 am

    "Red beam" reminded my of the etymology of the word turnpike, which originally referred to a (spiked) beam placed across the road that could be turned aside to let someone through when the toll was paid.

  16. tsts said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 12:58 pm

    While the German "Allee" is clearly related to English alley, the meaning is quite different, and avenue or boulevard is indeed a better translation. An Allee is usually wider than your average street, maybe has trees and grass on the side.

    Chaussee is also used for a certain type of street. If my recollection is correct, it is often used for streets leading out of the urban center towards another nearby town or location. Or at least that was the case when they were named in the 19th century – by now many of them might be completely inside the city. Also, I associate Chaussee with another term, "Ausfallstrasse", and would expect a Chaussee to have faster traffic than an Allee, which is usually a nicer place to take a walk.

  17. Michael Koplow said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 1:18 pm

    @~flow. Me too. I'm not going to try to outdo you. That's because I'm too dignified, and also because you'd probably win the contest.

  18. Xylophon said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 1:40 pm

    First things first, I love the word “Zahnkultur” written on the window. “Dental culture”, what a great compound noun. Only German could come up with something like this.

    Secondly, I wonder if there has already been a post on Language Log about how input systems on smartphones paired with orthographically negligent people make more and more German compound nouns fall apart. This irks me to no end. “Zahn Prophylaxe”, “Pop Musik”… In German, you just write compounds as one long word. If it's really bad and impairing the readability of a word, you can always hyphenate it. But commonly, people will write “Handy Hülle” (cell phone case), instead of “Handyhülle”. “Französisch Kurs” instead of “Französischkurs”. It's everywhere! And if we're at it, why not throw a Deppenapostroph (idiots' apostophe) in there, preferably in a problematic typesetting. “Recht´s Wissenschaft”, “Fakultät`s Gebäude”. Why not. Now I'm exaggerating, but you get the point.
    In my opinion, German orthography will in the next decades crumble under the pressure of ubiquitous English and its spelling. Or the written standard will detach itself even more from more informal written forms. Then again, even the social media accounts of big media outlets like FAZ are not able to pass a day without grave spelling mistakes in their posts anymore. So there's that.

  19. Anna said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 2:43 pm

    I've always found it somewhat strange that the tiny word "law" is used for both man-made law and the laws of nature (or divine law) in English.

    Offhand I would have thought that most or all IE languages make this distinction, that they have different words for man-made laws and immutable laws. German does (what little German I once had has more or less evaporated so I had to look this up). Germans have gesetz — naturgesetze and göttliche gesetze.

    But the two other languages I checked, Danish and Italian, don't make this distinction. They have their own tiny words, lov and legge. Is that the case with most European languages?


    June 26, 2018 @ 5:23 pm

    @Anna. But if we had distinct English words for the two kinds of law, one of the best jokes on The Simpsons wouldn't work:


  21. Adrian said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 6:31 pm

    @John Shutt – Perhaps the story has got slightly mangled over the years. It strikes me as unlikely that the hosts would've suggested that "feststehende Gesichte" (fixed faces) was an appropriate translation of "idioms". Idioms are fixed expressions, so perhaps they said "feststehende Ausdruecke".

  22. Roger Lustig said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 6:47 pm

    I've always wondered about Berlin's Chausseestraße.

  23. Roger Lustig said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 6:54 pm

    Alas, Upper Darby, PA's South 69th Street Boulevard seems to have dropped the last word in its name. I guess we'll always have Street Road…

  24. John Swindle said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 7:03 pm

    @Adrian: I took that to be -geschichte.

  25. empty said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 7:25 pm

    Another road-word in the "via calciata" family is "causeway", I believe.

  26. Jenny Chu said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 9:22 pm

    Now I will have to go look up whether the Polish word Aleje – meaning something more like "Boulevard" – is borrowed from German, then, or directly from French. I had always remarked on the difference between a grand "aleje" and a grimy "alley"…

  27. John Shutt said,

    June 26, 2018 @ 10:41 pm

    @ Adrian, John Swindle

    My mother is (I'm glad to say) still around and sharp. She's sure it wasn't Ausdruecke. She was unsure about -geschichte, admitting the possibility. (A second opinion /might/ eventually be forthcoming, as the other American present at the discussion is also still around.)

  28. loonquawl said,

    June 27, 2018 @ 1:24 am

    @John Shutt:

    Interestingly, "Gesichte" is a very old fashioned word for dreams/visions. While i highly doubt the word 'Feststehendeges(ch)ichte" exists (it's not a compound noun, for one, as 'feststehende' (fixed) is an adjective), i appreciate that the probable misspelling of 'Geschichte' (story) arrived at another story-related noun. One actual translation of idiom would be 'Redewendung', which is also a nice compound – Rede (talk) + Wendung (turn, twist). Candidates beginning with 'feststehende' would be 'feststehender Ausdruck','feststehender Begriff', or 'feststehende Wendung'. While 'feststehende Geschichte' is not an actual translation of idiom, it's possible that this is because of the oral nature of the discussion. 'Geschichte' in a formal context is translated as 'story' or 'history', but in a casual context it can also be the fill-in 'stuff' or 'thing', so it's possible the hosts said something like 'it's one of those fixed things, you know'.

  29. V said,

    June 27, 2018 @ 5:15 am

    Bulgarian has закон (nailed down), which is used for both natural and legal laws; but also право (forward, not bent), used for the field of law in general.

  30. Victor Mair said,

    June 27, 2018 @ 5:46 am

    @Michael Koplow

    "The real question is why it isn't 'Rechtswissenschaftsfakultät.' I mean, if the idea is to conserve spaces."

    You were probably just joking about conserving spaces. The real reason why German joins lexical components into such long words has to do with conceptualization. One of the main aims of this post was to encourage us to think about that aspect of the differences among languages.

    Sanskrit also has a predilection for forming very long compound words, and I've often pondered the similarity of German and Sanskrit in that regard.

    Xylophon has some very thoughtful remarks on this subject in his comment above.

  31. DWalker07 said,

    June 27, 2018 @ 9:52 am

    My parents used to joke that the German word for "babysitter" translated to "the person who comes at the end of the day to sit with the children" and that the word was a mile long.

  32. tsts said,

    June 27, 2018 @ 12:22 pm

    @DWalker07: Actually, the German word for babysitter is "babysitter". That is what everyone used when I grew up.

  33. DWalker07 said,

    June 27, 2018 @ 1:18 pm

    But that takes the funny part out! :-)

  34. Robert Davis said,

    June 27, 2018 @ 1:30 pm

    So from via calcitata, do we get the Spanish calzado?

  35. Lugubert said,

    June 27, 2018 @ 5:04 pm

    @ prof. Mair,

    "Sanskrit also has a predilection for forming very long compound words, and I've often pondered the similarity of German and Sanskrit in that regard."

    Sometimes Swedish compounds are longer than the corresponding German expression, sometimes it's the other way round. My German favourite is the machine for which I was translating the manual: a Hochleistungspapierhandtuchfalzmaschine – Highly efficient machine for folding paper towels. But neither language can match Sanskrit words running on for pages.

  36. ardj said,

    June 27, 2018 @ 7:29 pm

    My favourite story of portmanteauismus described the classic Schnellzugzuschlagschein:

    Das Wort vereinte in sich die jugendliche Sehnsucht nach fernen Ländern, das Versprechen der großen Bahnlinien und die Akkuratesse des höflichen, korrekt gekleideten Bahnbeamten, der mir den Schein ausstellte (Anthony Mellor-Stapelberg; Die Zeit, 24aug14).

    I once built on this in a talk to my (French) choir on “l’Allemand sans larmes” to construct ‘the chair of the (female) boss of the office selling such tickets’. Challenged that this was a joke on my part, and that there was no such word in German, I was obliged to confess, but pointed out that I had not invented Rindfleischetikettierungsüberwachungsaufgabenübertragungsgesetz.

    I would welcome further thoughts from native speakers on the emotional and semantic aspects of this, following Mellor-Stapelberg's inspiring comment – but note that German (along with most other agglutinating languages) has a long way to go before it can compete with the Inuit aulisautissarsiniapunja (if I recall correctly) – I wish I had a piece of string that would serve as a fishing line.

  37. Hans Adler said,

    June 28, 2018 @ 2:25 am

    German isn't an agglutinating language. The main difference to English in noun construction is that German spells compound words as single words while English usually leaves them apart, especially when they are formed on the spot. But that's little more than a matter of spelling. (Danish switched from German-style capitalisation of nouns to English style in a 1948 spelling reform.) There are some tricky considerations around using singular or plural and sometimes adding an s, but English has pretty much the same difficulties around using singular or plural or sometimes the possessive.

    While I am here: The example "Recht Fakultät" in the blog post itself is not German. The words would at the very least need to be spelled together and an extra s added: "Rechtsfakultät". But this is not idiomatic – perhaps because it sounds as if it should be in opposition to a "Linksfakultät" ("right faculty" vs. "left faculty"). The normal translation of "Faculty of law" is actually "Fakultät für Recht".

  38. Michael Koplow said,

    June 28, 2018 @ 8:20 am

    In David Gordon White, The Alchemical Body: Siddha Traditions in Medieval India (Chicago 1996), 390n19, is a citation to Śrīpārvatīputranityanāthasiddhaviracita Rasaratnākarāntargataścaturtho [sic] Ṛddhikhaṇḍaḥ-Vādikhaṇḍaḥ. I don’t necessarily recommend the book, but I treasure the citation because it contains my favorite sic ever. And some of those Sanskrit words are long, at least in English transliteration.

  39. Christian Weisgerber said,

    June 28, 2018 @ 9:27 am

    Victor Mair:

    The real reason why German joins lexical components into such long words has to do with conceptualization.

    And there I thought this was only a superficial matter of orthography. English also heaps up noun piles—here on Language Log usually discussed in the context of British headlinese—but inserts spaces. I have yet to see an analysis that the difference is more than a simple spelling convention. My favorite real world example is the compound Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships gold medalist, which I keep encountering on sherdog.com, a website that reports on combat sports, not exactly the most formal or literary medium.

  40. Chau said,

    June 28, 2018 @ 10:05 am

    "Offhand I would have thought that most or all IE languages make this distinction, that they have different words for man-made laws and immutable laws."

    The Romans in fact had two separate words for ‘law’: fās ‘divine law’ and iūs ‘human law’. What is intriguing is that fās seemed to be borrowed by Sinitic to become 法 fă ‘law’. This term dates back to Old Chinese. Shuowen 說文 defines fă 法 as ‘penal codes’ (法, 刑也). In the Warring States period there developed a school of thoughts on government by relying on strict adherence to cruel penal codes. This school was called 法家 făjiā. Their methods of application are called făshù 法術. An ardent practitioner of this theory was Shāng Yāng 商鞅 who was instrumental in helping Emperor Qín Shĭhuángdì 秦始皇帝 to unify China. Terms such as fălǜ 法律 ‘the law’, mínfă 民法 ‘civil law’, făyuàn 法院 ‘law court’, and făguān 法官 ‘judge’ are of modern origin, following the introduction of the Western legal systems.

    When Buddhism was introduced into China late in the Han Dynasty, fă 法, with its Latin origin fās connoting ‘divine law’, found a perfect milieu for its wide applications. Fă 法 is used to translate Sanskrit dharma ‘divine law’ such as in the title of a well-known sutra, 妙法蓮華經 ‘The Wonderful Dharma Lotus Flower Sutra’ (“法華經 Făhuájīng” for short). Buddhist monks are called făshī 法師 ‘teacher(s) of divine law’; their habits are called fă’ī 法衣 or făfú 法服; the name they adopt upon becoming followers of Buddha fămíng 法名, the vessels or utensils they use in ceremonies făqì 法器, and many other sorts of terms related to Buddhism and its practice. A well-known monk 法顯 Fă Xiăn of Eastern Jìn dynasty traveled to India to study Buddhist texts there for a total of 14 years. Thus, Chinese fă 法, originating from Latin fās ‘divine law’, has become highly productive in the terminology of both human and divine laws.

  41. Chris Button said,

    June 29, 2018 @ 1:12 pm

    @ Chau

    What is intriguing is that fās seemed to be borrowed by Sinitic to become 法 fă ‘law’. This term dates back to Old Chinese.

    I'm somewhat suspicious of that for a variety of reasons. For one, how are you accounting for the earlier -p coda in 法 ?

  42. Chau said,

    June 30, 2018 @ 9:07 pm

    @ Chris Button

    Thanks for the great question. I will try to answer it in three parts. Part 1 is given below. In Part 2 (to be submitted later) I will show that how Latin fās might be transformed to *f(u)āt and finally to MSM fă 法. In Part 3 I will show supporting evidence for the proposed derivation from L. fās.

    It’s true that traditional Chinese phonology (聲韻學) gives an earlier reading of 法 with a -p coda. In Gŭang Yùn (廣韻), 法 is listed under the entering tone #34 乏 rime (入聲三十四乏韻) with a -p coda. Sino-Korean reading of 法 beop and that of Sino-Vietnamese pháp agree with the Middle Chinese reconstruction with a -p coda.

    However, there are two facts suggesting that the reconstructed sound with a -p coda may not necessary be the only one. There is another kind of reading with a -t coda by two southern topolects not recorded in 廣韻.

    (1) Southern Min (except Teochew) gives only a single reading for 法 and that is hoat. Cantonese reads faat3. Both show a -t coda.
    (2) Three graphs in the #34 乏 rime in 廣韻 that I can quickly ascertain their Taiwanese pronunciations all show a -t coda: 乏 (the rime-heading graph) hoa̍t, 法 hoat, and 姂 hoa̍t.

    Cantonese and Southern Min are two large groups of southern topolects. And their historicity has been well established. It is unfortunate that in Chinese historical linguistics their -t coda is not taken into account in reconstruction of the Middle Chinese sound for 法.

  43. S. Valkemirer said,

    July 1, 2018 @ 11:09 am

    Is there any objective basis for the belief that German, when compared, say, to English, has many long words — or is it just a matter of spacing conventions?

    Are " Food and Agricultural Organization" and "Ernährungs- und Landwirtschaftsorganisation." for example, any different?

    What if the English name of the organization were spelled

    "Food- and Agriculturalorganisation" and its German named spelled

    "Ernährungs- und Landwirtschafts Organisation"? Which would be the language with long names?

  44. S. Valkemirer said,

    July 1, 2018 @ 11:37 am

    After posting my remark at 11:09 am, I saw that Christian Weisgerber expressed the same though.

  45. David Marjanović said,

    July 1, 2018 @ 2:14 pm

    Offhand I would have thought that most or all IE languages make this distinction, that they have different words for man-made laws and immutable laws.

    Most language in Europe, at any rate, have a quite different distinction: that between the count noun (one law, two laws, a law of nature, the divine law, the [name] Act of [year]) and the mass noun (the law as a body of knowledge and object of study), the latter being equated with the count noun "right" (as in "the right to bear arms"). German: Gesetz, Recht; French: loi, droit (and cognates of these in the other Romance languages); Russian, Bulgarian and others: закон, право.

    While I'm at it: Allee in German means "street with trees on both sides".

    Are "Food and Agricultural Organization" and "Ernährungs- und Landwirtschaftsorganisation." for example, any different?

    Slightly: the latter would more strictly translate as "Food and Agriculture Organization" with a noun instead of an adjective, while the former would more strictly translate as "Ernährungs- und landwirtschaftliche Organisation", which would generally be regarded as clumsy.

    The -s- only appears in compounds and thus marks Ernährungsorganisation and Landwirtschaftsorganisation in pronunciation as well as in spelling. Historically, it is a generalization of the genitive ending of one particular declension class to which neither -ung nor -schaft (two nominalizing derivational suffixes; ~ "-ing", "-ship") have ever belonged.

    What is intriguing is that fās seemed to be borrowed by Sinitic to become 法 fă ‘law’.

    Other than the superficial resemblance, do you have any further evidence that this isn't just a chance resemblance between two very simple syllables?

  46. Chris Button said,

    July 1, 2018 @ 4:20 pm

    @ Chau

    However, there are two facts suggesting that the reconstructed sound with a -p coda may not necessary be the only one. There is another kind of reading with a -t coda by two southern topolects not recorded in 廣韻.

    But that is just the result of dissimilation of the bilabial coda from the onset. The -p is original.

  47. John Shutt said,

    July 2, 2018 @ 9:28 am

    Regarding the philosophy of noun construction, we've a story from another member of the family, from about twenty years ago. A gentleman walks into a college bookstore looking for help. Speaks excellent English with a strong German accent. Is looking for a certain kind of book, but isn't sure what it's called in English, so has to describe it. Big pages filled with big beautiful pictures, suitable to set in one's parlor where guests, in a slow moment, might pleasantly occupy themselves by leafing through it admiring the pictures. Oh yes, says the bookstore employee, we call that a "coffee table book". This put a big smile on the gentleman's face; he /loved/ that name. Never mind whether it's written with spaces or hyphens or whatever, this being spoken dialog anyway; it must have come to him like a gust of breeze carrying the scent of home. I've always kept that story in mind as an illustration of deep linguistic attitude.

    (Btw, small updates re "feststehendeges(ch)ichte": My mother has corrected me; she believes it was probably the locals who used the idiom, setting off the whole digression. And the discussion took place in Paderborn in (about?) 1952.)

  48. David Marjanović said,

    July 2, 2018 @ 1:46 pm

    Never mind whether it's written with spaces or hyphens or whatever, this being spoken dialog anyway; it must have come to him like a gust of breeze carrying the scent of home. I've always kept that story in mind as an illustration of deep linguistic attitude.

    German does not, BTW, have a name for "coffee-table book". And if you're under any impression that three-member noun compounds are rare in English, look again – I just made a four-member one.

  49. John Shutt said,

    July 2, 2018 @ 2:18 pm

    @David Marjanović: Characteristics of English are not the point of the story. Although, as it happens, no I'm not under such an impression; in passing, seems to me your compound is of a fleeting nature, compared to the idiomatic "coffee-table book". Or maybe that's not such a minor point, as it may go directly to why the gentleman reacted as he did.

  50. Christian Weisgerber said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 7:04 am

    David Marjanović:

    German does not, BTW, have a name for "coffee-table book".

    I'm poorly versed in publishing terminology, but I'd offer Bildband.

  51. Chau said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 11:12 am

    @ Chris Button:

    Part 2 (A)

    If Latin fās ‘divine law’ and Taiwanese hoat 法 'law' are etymologically related, one needs to explain the -s > -t sound change. Parenthetically, it is understood that the Tw h- initial is an adaptation of the European f- initial, and Tw -o- is an infix of glide -u- written as in orthographic POJ. So essentially we are comparing L. fās with an imaginary *fat. Notice that the double -a- in Cantonese faat3 seems to preserve the Latin long ā. (Taiwanese phonology does not differentiate between the long and short sound lengths of vowels.)

    The -s > -t correspondence is quite commonly seen in historical linguistics. For example, Greek χάρις ‘grace’ is a cognate of Latin gratia, with the Greek final -s corresponding to the stem-final -t of L. grat-ia, seen in English “grateful”. The reason for the -s >-t change is obvious if you look at the oblique cases of χάρις: gen. χάρĭτος, acc. χάριτα, and pl. χάριτες. Therefore, morphology is a key to see correspondences between cognates in sister languages.

    Morphology also plays an important role in language borrowing. For instance, English “part” is a loanword, the very origin of which can be traced back to Latin pars ‘part of a whole’. The accusative of pars is partem, and it is partem (with loss of the final -m) that was handed down to Latin’s daughter languages: Italian parte, Spanish parte, Provençal part, Old and Modern French part. The Old French word “part” was loaned to English.

    However, there is a problem in connecting Tw hoat 法 with L. fās. L. fās is indeclinable! Therefore, morphology is of no help here. What can I do? (To be continued…)

  52. Chau said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 11:23 am


    Please read the part in Paragraph 1, line 4, "glide -u- written as in orthographic POJ" as "glide -u- written as o in orthographic POJ". I wrote the symbol for orthographic o but the Website thought it was related to a computer drive and rejected it.

  53. Chris Button said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 11:53 am

    @ Chau

    I think you might have missed my earlier comment. The -t coda is just the result of dissimilation of the original bilabial -p coda from the onset. Yue-Hashimoto specifically mentions 法 as an example of this on p.128 of her 1972 book on Cantonese phonology:

    "The dissimilation of initial and ending segments is also evinced in the history of Cantonese. For example, the ancient labial ending *-m/*-p is well preserved in Cantonese, except when it occurred in syllables with labial initials, in which case it changed into -n/-t. Thus, 塔 is [t'ᴀ:p4] but 法 is [fᴀ:t4] in present-day Cantonese (both words are derived from Xian-she, which had the ending *-m/*-p in Ancient Chinese)"

    Incidentally, I actually think there is sporadic dialectal evidence for such dissimilatory effects as far back as the oracle-bone inscriptions, but I'll leave that for another time…

  54. Andy said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 12:59 pm

    FWIW χάρις and gratia are not actually cognate.

  55. Chau said,

    July 3, 2018 @ 7:13 pm

    @ Chris Button

    Part 2 (B)
    No, I didn’t miss your earlier comment that the -t coda was just the result of dissimilation of the original bilabial -p coda from the onset. Sorry, I didn’t mean to appear to ignore your comment; it’s just that I was planning to come back to it after I finish presenting the rest of my response so that you can better see my viewpoint.

    Now back to my proposed -s > -t sound change. Another way to search for a possible link (between -s and -t) is to look for a word related to L. fās which share the same etymological origin. L. fātum fits the bill. Both fās and fātum share the same etymological pathway. Fās originally meant ‘what is spoken and commanded by the priests’, the meaning then extended to ‘divine word, divine law’. Fātum meant ‘a prophecy or oracle as uttered by the priests’ which extended to ‘a divine utterance, prophecy, doom’ and became the source for English “fate”, “fateful” and “fatal”. Both are derived from L. fārī ‘to speak’, the latter was ultimately derived from PIE bhā- ‘to speak’.

    Thus, with the precedent of the two related words, fās and fātum, showing the -s > -t correspondence, my proposed relation between L. fās and Tw hoat 法 does not seem to be too far fetched. At least it is allowed. Part 3 will present supporting evidence for the proposed derivation.

    @ Andy: “FWIW χάρις and gratia are not actually cognate.”
    I got the information of their cognate relationship from Valpy’s Etymological Dictionary of the Latin Language (1828), p. 180. Both Smith and Lockwood’s Latin-English Dictionary and Liddell and Scott’s An Intermediate Greek-English Lexicon also indicate so. There may be more update information, but I haven’t got the time to search far enough. I will keep it in mind.

    @ Professor Mair. Will you please allow me to finish my response before you close the comment section? I will soon submit Part 3 regarding supporting evidence, which I hope would address David Marjanović’s question.

  56. Wentao said,

    July 5, 2018 @ 10:34 am

    @Chau: Um maybe I should point out the onset of MC 法 is p not f?

  57. January First-of-May said,

    July 6, 2018 @ 8:12 am

    IMHO, while German is well known for its noun pile words, Rechtswissenschaftliche in particular is less of a noun pile and more of a mess of derivational suffixes. A vague English analogue could be *Jurisprudentialistic (faculty).

  58. January First-of-May said,

    July 6, 2018 @ 8:14 am

    …On second thought, more like *Jurisprudentiological.

  59. January First-of-May said,

    July 6, 2018 @ 8:19 am

    …And of course the exact cognate would be something along the lines of **Rightwisdomshiply. Which sounds like one of those ATLs without William the Conqueror.

  60. Victor Mair said,

    July 6, 2018 @ 8:57 pm

    From Chau Wu:

    @ Chris Button

    Part 3 (A): Evidence in support of the proposed -s > -t correspondence

    The evidence I have marshaled in support of the -s > -t correspondence can be grouped into 4 categories. In order to save space in the comment section, I have selected only the more persuasive items, and present the arguments in the most succinct style like an abstract. I regret that I have to leave out some details. I hope you would be able to follow the rationale behind each argument.

    Group 1: The graph 法 is used in meanings other than ‘the law’.

    1. 曆法 (Tw le̍k-hoat) ‘calendar’. In the compound word 曆法, 曆 already means ‘calendar’, so what’s the role for 法 in there? It turns out 曆法 is a pleonastic compound with 法 also meaning ‘calendar’. Here, 法 (hoat) can be derived from Latin fāsti (substantive use of masculine plural of fāstus) ‘calendar, almanac.’ Derivation: fāsti > * fāst- > assimilation > *fass- > *fas > 法 (Tw hoat) ‘calendar’.

    2. 法 (Tw hoat) ‘to emulate’ can be used alone or as a pleonastic 效法 (Tw hāu-hoat) ‘to emulate’. A famous sentence 法古今完人 (MSM fă kŭ jīn wán rín) means ‘Emulate the ideal man of the past and present’ (see figure below). Here 法 means ‘to emulate, copy’ and has nothing to do with ‘the law’. It can be derived from a Latin compound fac similis ‘made similar’ which is often used as a fused word facsimilis > E. facsimile ‘exact copy’ (> today’s modern term “fax”). Derivation: facsimilis > *facs- > assimilation > *fass- > *fas > 法 ‘to emulate’.

    Fig.1. A facsimile of 法古今完人 in Sun Yat-sen’s handwriting.
    (Photo by Chau)

    Group 2: 法 ‘the law’ is used as an element in a pleonastic compound.

    A famous phrase 約法三章 (MSM yuē fă sān zhāng) ‘set the law in three articles (only)’ is from 史記 Shĭjì, 漢高祖傳 (Biography of Emperor Kaozu of Han Dynasty). Here 法 is used as an element in the compound 約法 ‘to set the law’. The graph 約 (Tw iok) means ‘commandment, law’ and is used in terms related to ‘compact, contract, commandment’, such as 新舊約 (Tw Sin-kū-iok) ‘New and Old Testaments’. The iok 約 comes from L iūs ‘the law’ through a pattern of sound change -us > -(i)ok. Examples: L grus ‘crane’ > Tw hók 鶴 id., Hindus ‘India’ > Thian-tiok 天竺 an ancient name for India, L crus ‘leg’ > Tw kiok 腳 (lit.) ‘leg’, Gk χρῡσάνθεμον (chrysanthemum) > khrūs- > Tw kiok 菊 id. Therefore, we can see that L iūs ‘law’ > iok 約 ‘compact, law’ follows the pattern. Thus, 約法 with its meaning of ‘law-law’ is a pleonastic compound.

    The reason for 司馬遷 (Sīmă Qiān) to use 約 and 法 bound together as a pleonastic compound 約法 ‘law-law’ is probably for clarity as well as for emphasis. It nicely echoed the Roman orator Cicero’s statement “ius ac fas omne delere” (Strike out every human and even divine law), in which “ius ac fas” nicely matches iok-hoat 約法. Here both words for ‘law’ in Latin and in Sinitic are lined up side by side and matched in meaning. There is no other way to interpret this beautiful parallelism than that 法 hoat is synonymous with 約 iok and that fās corresponds to Tw hoat 法 with the -s > -t sound change. As a general rule, pleonastic compounds, which are abundant in Sinitic, are an extremely useful tool in finding connections between European and Sinitic comparanda.

    (To be continued…)

  61. Chris Button said,

    July 8, 2018 @ 11:47 am

    @ Chau

    The association you identify between "law" and "calendar" is great, However, while it demonstrates a common tendency in semantic change across different languages, it is by no means reason to suggest any phonological association between such languages. Respectfully, I find the rest somewhat misled, although for 天竺 compare 身毒 in both of which the -k coda of 竺 and 毒 is reflective of the /k/ in "Hinduka".

  62. Chau said,

    July 8, 2018 @ 7:04 pm

    @ Chris Button: thank you for your tip on “Hinduka.”

    Part 3 (B): Evidence for the -s > -t sound change (Cont’d)

    Group 3: Other examples of the -s > -t sound change (only 4 are shown).

    1. Gk φάσις (phásis) ‘an accusation’ > * phas- > Tw hoat 發 as in kò-hoat 告發 ‘make an accusation’, where kò 告 ‘to file a suit’ can be derived from L. causa ‘a law-suit’ through a well-known sound change of -au > -o (since the Roman times).
    [Derivation for kò 告: L causa ‘law suit’ > *cau- > *co- > Tw kò 告 ‘to sue.’]

    2. L. phasēlus ‘a light boat, skiff’ > *phas- > Tw hoa̍t /poat 橃 ‘a boat’. 橃 is an ancient glyph and has since been replaced by a simpler 筏 (made of bamboo) or 栰 (of wood) hoa̍t, with the meaning also shifting to ‘raft’, a simpler craft.

    3. Gk βασιλεύω (basileúō) ‘to be king, to rule, reign’ > *bas- > Tw hat 轄 ‘to rule, govern, control’. The glyph 轄, originally connoting the iron cap of a cart axel, was borrowed to transcribe the sound (Tw hat; Cantonese hat6). [For the correspondence of the initial between European b- and Taiwanese h-, please see Sino-Platonic Papers, Issue 262, pp. 116-117. Eleven examples are given there.]

    4. L. cibus ‘food (for man and beast)’ > gemination > *cib-bus > dissimilation > *cit-bus > Tw si̍t-bu̍t 食物 ‘food’. Note the change of sound for the onset from Latin k- to Taiwanese s-. This is similar to how Cicero, known to the Romans of his time as [kikero], is called [sisero] in English today. Thus, Tw si̍t-bu̍t 食物 bears a time mark. Since the Vulgar Latin palatalization of c before e or i started from the 4th century (which later went on to s-), this word must have migrated to Asia after that time, not before.

    Group 4: Consider the case of the rime-heading glyph 乏 (Tw hoa̍t).

    乏 is the standard-bearer of the entering tone #34 乏 rime of Guăng Yùn (廣韻) that shows a -p coda. But it is pronounced with a -t coda in Taiwanese hoa̍t (as mentioned in Part 1), Cantonese fat6, and Hakka fat8 (all branches except 東莞 fap8 – I will discuss this point in the next post). 乏 has two major meanings: (1) when it is used in 疲乏 (MSM pífá), it means ‘to be tired, exhausted’; and (2) when used in 貧乏 (MSM pínfá), it means ‘poor, lacking’. These two usages suggest two separate etymological pathways that converged on the same glyph 乏, which was borrowed to transcribe the same sound for both meanings.

    Latin fatigāre ‘to weary, exhaust’ (via French) gave rise to English fatigue ‘weariness, exhaustion’. From the Latin source we can derive 乏 hoa̍t:
    L fatigāre > fat- > Cantonese fat6, Hakka fat8 and Tw hoa̍t (with f- > h-).

    Recall that Old Chinese (OC) lacked the f sound (古無輕唇音), therefore the f onset was substituted with other phones such as p or h. Because the Min branch split off from the Sinitic stock fairly early, it has maintained some of the OC characteristics and thus its pronunciation of 乏 is hoa̍t, whereas Cantonese and Hakka seem to retain the original f- onset of L fatigāre.

    The second 乏 (Tw hoa̍t) in 貧乏 (Tw pîn-hoa̍t) ‘poor, lacking’ serves the same semantic function as 寒 (Tw hân) in the synonym 貧寒 (Tw pîn-hân). Here 寒 has nothing to do with ‘coldness’; it is borrowed to write the sound. In fact 寒 (hân) is the nasalized version of 乏 (hoa̍t) with the homorganic relation of -n > -t. Both 寒 and 乏 in turn are related to 貧 which can be derived ultimately from Latin pēnūria (or Gk πένης) meaning ‘indigence, want, dearth’ that also gave rise to E penury.
    Derivation: L pēnūria > pen- > (Tw) pîn 貧 > *pân > (Tw) hân 寒 > (Tw) hoa̍t 乏.

    If it is accepted that 乏 may trace its origins to Latin, then the -t coda we see in Cantonese, Taiwanese and Hakka can be easily explained by its etymological origins in Latin (-t directly, or -n indirectly). Since both 乏 and 法 exhibit the -t final in Taiwanese and Cantonese (and for 乏 in Hakka except 東莞), and 乏 is the standard-bearer of the #34 rime, we may venture to think that the -p coda for this rime as recorded in Guăng Yùn (廣韻) may reflect the topolectal variety of Middle Chinese prevalent in northern China, where the imperial court was located. And the -t final of Cantonese and Southern Min, the peripheral topolects, was not recorded. Thus, there might be topolectal variations of the coda for 法, as you hinted at in your previous comment.

    (In the final installment to come, I will discuss a couple of points.)

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