Posted by: aediculaantinoi | September 22, 2013

Linguistic P(o)e/dan/try

Just a somewhat silly passing notion that I thought I’d get down here, just for fun. 😉

Sometimes, knowing a bit about linguistics can be an intriguing meta-level of understanding on any given matter. And, the differences between words phonologically can be fascinating to compare as well, especially when some words seem relatively close to each other. Greek and Roman, as well as Irish, folk etymological traditions were built upon homophone/”pun” relationships between words quite often, and these were not simply things that people spoke in the streets, but they were the mainstays of the scholarly cultures involved. Now, with the modern and scientific understanding of linguistic etymologies, a further level to these understandings has been added, and has often eclipsed those older but more deeply-rooted semantic connections that have been intuited by sound based on how people speak at any given time in history.

So, I was thinking about a particular word earlier today: “define.” And, I was thinking about another word that is incredibly close to it phonologically: “divine.” (I should note, I’m thinking of the latter word in its understanding as the present tense and infinitive of the verb “to divine,” and not as an adjective: thus, as the act of divination.)

Now, you might be saying: but wait! One of them is spelled “def-” and the other is spelled “div-” which is not the same thing at all! But, actually, it is, because the “e” and the “i” in each one is pronounced generally as an unstressed schwa (ə), which is to say, almost an “uh” sound. So, that takes care of that…

But wait, you might still be saying: there’s a huge difference between an “f” and a “v,” right? Actually, no, there isn’t, and one becomes or gets pronounced as the other on a regular basis: the word “of” is spelled with an “f” but is pronounced generally as if it is a “v.” There are also many words that vary between the two letters in singular and plural: “half” and “halves,” “wolf” and “wolves,” “calf” and “calves,” and so forth.

What is the differences between “v” and “f,” then, from a phonological viewpoint? It’s that “f” is unvoiced, and “v” is voiced.

Think about that for a moment, in relation to the two words that I introduced earlier: the main difference between “define” and “divine” phonologically is that the latter is voiced. Now think about that more for a moment, in a kind of poetic fashion: the difference between defining something and divining over it is that the latter is voiced.

What does that mean? We humans, particularly in theological matters, love to define things–in fact, it’s a major (and important, and I’d argue essential!) task in theology to define things, to tease out fine distinctions of meaning between terms, and how those terms are deployed within practical and theoretical contexts. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this, and in fact I think there should be a great deal more of it than has been done previously.

But, in theology, something should also be going on at all times, at least for polytheists, because polytheism is a practical and experiential religion: we should be in contact with the divine realities that our theologies and our definitions are based upon. One way to do that is to use divination, which gives the divine beings (among them the gods) upon whom we rely the ability to speak for themselves. Thus, “to define” is voiceless, but “to divine” is voiced and has a voice…the voice of the gods and other divine beings. In defining, we speak for ourselves as theologians who are humans; in divining, while human interpretation (which includes definition) is involved, it is the voice of the gods and other spirits which comes through and is highlighted and, sometimes quite literally, given voice.

Anyway, this is perhaps an interesting poetic-linguistic matter, or it might just be petty and pedantic reading of too-large significances into things that are quite coincidental. But, what in divination doesn’t potentially fall into that category?

I don’t know…what do you think?


  1. Inari: Fox populi, fox dei.

  2. […]it is, because the “e” and the “i” in each one is pronounced generally as an unstressed schwa (ə), which is to say, almost an “uh” sound. So, that takes care of that…” — if you’re speaking English, yeah…

    In other languages, including Latin (I think), but definitely French, German, Italian, there’s a marked difference between the “e” sound in “define” and the “i” sound in “divine”. So, I’m really not sure about that line of argument.

    I will say though, that noting the etymologies of corresponding words in English (my quasi-native language) and German (my native language) has helped giving me a more in-depth understanding of a number of concepts, including “worship/Verehrung”, “humility/Demut”, and a couple more. The differences are subtle but definitely there… The latest example of linguistic mixup, followed by some study of what’s what, was when I wrote about offerings: the German word “Opfer” can mean “offering”, “sacrifice”, and “victim”.

    I guess the fact that I write my blog in two languages makes it necessary sometimes, to think on those matters more.

    I think your phonology oriented approach is interesting. It certainly provokes some interesting thoughts; I believe that whatever deepens the understanding of things is worth pursuing. Me, I go for etymology because I’m fluent in two languages that are somewhat related, but different enough to be interesting. I guess it’s what sort of suggests itself in my situation.🙂

    • Since this is an English-language blog, that was what I was suggesting; in no way do my comments apply to other languages (and since both “define” and “divine” don’t exist in other languages in quite those terms, it is useless to even speak of them…!?!).

      Irish and Latin can both use unstressed schwa sounds in different positions that can be represented by “i,” “e,” and sometimes even “o” or “a” or even “u”–it depends, but the first two are the most common for those purposes, especially in unstressed syllables.

      • I didn’t mean to say you were aiming for “general applicability”, sorry if that came across as aggressive. What I actually meant to emphasize was that I think whatever causes one to gain a deeper understanding of “these things” is worth pursuing, whether it’s generally applicable or not.

        (I’m not exactly sure what you mean when you say “define” and “divine” don’t exist in other languages in quite those terms — unsure what those terms are, mostly. If by that you mean the schwa sound and f/v uh…. connection… then yes, I agree. Otherwise I’d ask you to explain what you mean by “in quite those terms”.)

      • I literally mean “in quite those terms,” i.e. in other languages, “define” and “divine” are entirely different words/terms, and are probably not very close to one another at all to even merit a comparison. (Except possibly French.)

      • For example:

        French: diviner(v.)/divin(e)(adj.), définer;
        Italian: divinare(v.)/divino(-a)(adj.), definire;
        German: divinieren (v., admittedly uncommon), definieren.
        Spanish: divino(-a)(adj.), definir;
        Portuguese: divino(-a)(adj.), definir.

        Romanian falls into that category, too, Latin of course as well, and I suppose Romance languages in general.

        I honestly do not understand your line of argument, but maybe I’m misunderstanding something important…

      • I’m pretty sure it’s just that there’s a pun involved in this particular insight, and that pun requires that the language you’re using at has the words that mean “divine” and “define” sounding very similar. Which means the pun that prompted the insight doesn’t work in, German, or Irish Gaelic, for example. -E-

  3. > the main difference between “define” and “divine” phonologically is that the latter is voiced.

    Ooohhhh, well played.

    > I don’t know…what do you think?

    I think I love you…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s