Is etymology a science or an art?

The question has been gnawing at me for many decades and eventually, more out of cowardice than of conviction, I settled for a tentative “probably a bit of both”.

I’ve seen plenty of reasonable, sound, persuasive etymologies as well as many blood-curdling ones that even a smart five year old wouldn’t buy. I even improvised a few rather plausible ones myself - for the fun of it, all painstakingly forged - and some of them were taken seriously by competent people, if only for a while.

So what’s your take, Etymonliners? Science or art?

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I think etymology is strictly a science, because for every question in etymology there exists a clear-cut correct answer (allowing that sometimes the answer is “That isn’t the right question, and here’s why: …”). When I say that clear-cut correct answers exist, I don’t mean to say they are already known, but merely that each change in the use of language does happen in some particular way, and is therefore knowable in principle. I don’t know what foods you ate yesterday, but it is a scientific question because there exists a clear-cut answer knowable in principle, not an artistic range of choices. (And just as you probably ate some combination of foods rather than a single food, words may change by more than one method at a time; the fact that an answer has several parts does not make it less of an answer or more artistic.)

I think the “art” you referred to could be for two separate reasons: the difficulty of finding and confirming those clear-cut answers because etymological data is scarce, and the skill required to come up with valuable interesting questions that will have informative answers.

Einstein made it clear that as a physicist he spent part of his time on questions such as “How might this really work?”. He was considering plausible solutions to try to determine whether they were viable. Artists certainly do the same thing, considering plausible solutions to try to determine whether they’re viable. I think the difference between art and science is not in the level or amount of creativity used, but in the kind of results each one seeks and produces.

Maybe under ideal conditions art and science overlap, but I think under ordinary conditions the difference is that the ultimate answers to art are “in here” (for each person) and the ultimate answers to science are “out there”. Whether you like my art should depend on what my art has in common with you. Whether you like my science should depend on what my science has in common with the world. (But your opinions of my art or my science end up also depending on whether I’m in competition with you, whether you like me, and a lot of other things.)


“Sometimes science is more art than science, Morty.”

It’s pretty much a combination of history and linguistics. I think most people wouldn’t call those arts, but they’re not exactly sciences either, at least not in the usual sense that people intend for that word. (I think they are sometimes defined as “social science” or some kind of qualified science like that.)

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That’s quite correct: both 'science" and '‘art’ may be read in several ways but you hit the bull’s eye.

Occasionally new concepts pop up between your ears without any logical explanation and you feel it would be a pity to let them fade away.
If you’re satisfied with putting them on paper, on canvas, on marble or whatever and then pass them on to your fellow humans, then it is (or could be) art.
If you feel compelled to find a rationale for them, proven facts to support them and methods to confirm them systematically, then it’s science.

But etymology makes things complicated: as Talia points out, it’s a combination of history and linguistics (and, let me add, more than a pinch of brilliant intuition). Now, linguistics can be legitimately regarded as a science but history cannot: even recent history depends too much on who wrote it (habitually the winner), and the farther back we dig in the past, the less consistent and plausible the events we find.
When it comes to phonetics the scene is even messier and all we have is educated guesses: we cannot step in our time machine and go interview native speakers from 3000 years ago - and even if we could, they wouldn’t understand a syllable of our scholarly impeccable Latin, ancient Greek or Sanskrit, so we’d probably end up locked in a dungeon without even knowing why.

Thus, once linguistics has done its scientific part, all too often etymology must resort to that elusive, vague, hardly definable (but utterly effective) tool called common sense. And common sense is definitely an art.

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No Chiron, here you’re wrong! :sweat_smile:
It just occurred to me that in 442 BC Aristophanes wrote about sheep bleating βὴ βὴ, thus strongly suggesting that in his time β was pronounced b rather than v as it is today - at least on the reasonable assumption that Attic ProtoOvitic didn’t change much in the next 2462 years :wink:

That’s something more than an educated guess, though perhaps not much more…

Folk etymologies are often based on common sense (“A sovereign is the person who reigns, so that must be what that last sound represents” – only it isn’t so, it’s just a coincidence in how the evolution of Latin superanus came to be pronounced after it hit English.) But that’s probably the “art” side of it to whatever level it exists.

Most if it, I would say, is about how well you know the data, which would tend to make it a science. The difficulty there is in how reliable that data is and one’s ability to deduce what to trust or not – say, if I find some 19th century text saying the pantomime clown character Harlequin is named for a mythical demon king from German mythology, does that seem reliable? I can reason that perhaps it seemed okay with the known scholarship at the time that theory was produced (in pantomime of the 18th and 19th century Harlequin was a magical clown character and usually the star of a show, so this might seem like the stories of a mythic demon king could be a valid origin for him). But, I know we have plenty of records now showing that Harlequin originated as an Italian servant character in commedia dell’arte shows. So a German mythological demon king seems highly improbably as an origin for that. But if I did not know about the history of commedia dell’arte I might not know that information which is needed to recognize that the German etymology is unreliable.

Then there’s that toxic “history was written by the winners” mindset to contend with, which to a not insignificant number of people evidently means that all historical records are fake and anyone gets to just make up whatever “truth” is because that’s what winners do (and you know you’re a winner!) Under this mindset it doesn’t matter that there’s dozens of 16th century Italian sources mentioning commedia type shows and Harlequin’s presence in them, whilst there are no such German sources from the era or earlier. To this thinking it just means all those Italian records are faked by the evil “winners” who just buried all the texts that would have supported the German etymology.

So I would say if the only two options are art or science, it’s a science. It’s just one that exists in that state that many sciences have been in through time, where the data can sometimes be changed on you – say with medicine. But even when people didn’t know as much medicine as we know now, there’s always been distinction between a doctor who is following the current understanding of the science and a quack who is just saying whatever people want to hear.

What other options were you hoping for? Sport? Vacation getaway? Cake? :grin:

That’s the popular version of common sense, profusely used by those who ignore (or don’t care to acquire) the available data that would lead to a more reliable and plausible conclusion.
But there’s another version of it, still based more on intuition than on reason, to be used as a last resort when the available data are insufficient, inconsistent or even contradictory. In science they prefer to call it a “working hypothesis” (it sounds more serious) but it’s still a wild guess that needs to be confirmed or refuted as soon as more data are available. Without it today quantum mechanics probably wouldn’t exist.

Truth can be poisonous, but that’s no good reason to ignore or deny it. I was there when the winners flooded my city and over a couple of decades imported their language, their people, their traditions, their bureaucracy, their habits and their way of life. At school we children were taught their version of history, their patriotic crap and all the glorious advantages of belonging to them.
As a result today a centuries old dialect has almost completely disappeared, together with the historic roots of the city and quite a share of the original population that wouldn’t accept to be assimilated and left (yours truly included).
For all I know that’s not an isolated case but rather a standard procedure with a few occasional exceptions.

No, obviously it’s not a binary choice: even in science you find bits of art, and in art bits of science.
As you say, medicine is a great example: in spite of all our efforts to make it a true science, we still know too little about how our body and mind work and thus a good physician with a fine diagnostic instinct and a vast scientific background is still more an artist than a scientist.

Absolutely true, but sometimes telling the one from the other can be a challenging task.

I think it can quite comfortably fit into the catergory of being a Humanity.

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FWIW, I actually went and looked up what the origins of that “history was written by the winners” quote was, and it’s one where it didn’t mean what everyone now thinks it means. It was originally about Robespierre and his failure to “make history” rather than about winners burying history of the losers.

Honestly I didn’t know that “history is written by the winners” was a quote, I just regarded it as common knowledge like “the sun rises in the east”.
Be it as it may, I suspect that tracing the original copyright holder may entail digging much deeper than just a few centuries in the past - just think of Caesar’s “De bello gallico” and its Leitmotiv about all those barbarians desperately needing to be “civilized” (read: romanized). Which in turn would probably send you back to Alexander the Great, and I very much doubt it would be the last stop.

Etymology does not create new knowledge, it merely resurrects human knowledge about words (human artefacts) stored in other human artefacts (e.g. written documents). Thus, from historical sources the origin and evolution of words and their meanings, and usages, is uncovered. Archaeology and genealogy, also reveal human cultural and ethnic histories though the study of ,human artefacts.
Historical studies of human affairs are not amenable to the formulation of testable hypotheses, or predictions. Could an etymologist formulate an hypothesis about the way words evolve?
Thus,unlike the studies of natural phenomena, historical studies of human affairs cannot be identified as science (although they may be supported by scientific methods).

I think etymologists can and do that systematically: every etymology is actually a hypothesis about how a word did evolve - though not how it will evolve in the future.
And in order to become an established theory a hypothesis must not only explain consistently all the facts currently known, but also predict reliably facts still to occur.
Here etymology is at loss, if only due to a minor technical detail: regrettably (or fortunately, I’m not sure) no one of us will live long enough to test the current etymological hypotheses against the way today’s words will change over the centuries to come. But some day someone will do that and, if today’s predictions come true, etymology could be accepted as a science to all effects.

@macsking11 I think there are different ways to understand what you’ve just written, and it seems to me they don’t all provide the same result. For example, in one sense, physics is a human affair. Objects and events that behave according to physics would continue without us, but they do not “do physics” as we do. In the normal sense, however, physics is not a human affair because we are studying something that does not depend on us.

But consider, for example, sneezing. Sneezes depend on us, they are a human affair, yet it makes perfect sense to study sneezes in terms of physics, and again in terms of biology, and again in terms of chemistry. (They can also be studied in ways that have much less to do with science.)

We use language in a social way, but it does not follow that every aspect of language can only be studied from that single point of view. Language is a human product, but that does not imply that every aspect of language must be capriciously arbitrary; it does not even imply that we choose how language works. (We mostly don’t choose how sneezes work …)

I think it’s clear that we have far more control and choice in language than in sneezing, but that does not entirely exclude language from science. Part of the study of language IS the mere cataloguing of arbitrary choices, that’s true – but, being an aspect of how humans operate, language is necessarily also an odd little branch of biology; and to the extent that language (and its components, formation, development, etc) follow patterns, especially ones that are consistent and predictable across different societies, I think it is amenable to some kind of legitimate science of language. Exactly what that extent is I don’t know, but I would regard “none at all” as a very surprising and strange idea.

If we were to say biology is not a science because it depends on particular organisms and is not applicable in every situation, then we would have to say physics is not much good either, since it depends on a particular universe that could be replaced at any moment. :slightly_smiling_face:

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