Monday, September 17, 2007

Why I Heart Walter W. Skeat

I've been reading Principles of English Etymology, by the Rev. Walter W. Skeat, Litt.D., Elrington and Bosworth Professor of Anglo-Saxon in the University of Cambridge (because that's the kind of person I am). I find Skeat's explanation of sound changes better than the more recent ones (as I discussed in this post), and I am just thoroughly enjoying the book.

But I think what I like most is Skeat's persona coming through in the writing in a way that contemporary academic writing doesn't allow. He's even crabbier than Tolkien! (And I see the antecedents of some of Tolkien's academic writing in Skeat, but I'll write that up in a more formal context later).

Skeat is obviously very frustrated with dilettante etymologists who do not understand vergleichende Philologie (maybe that's why I love him so), and he lets these people have it with both barrels on many occasions.

Here is one of my favorites:

If we say that E. foot is derived from the G. Fuss (as is actually said by many), we are then talking nonsense, and contradicting all history; if we say that the G. Fuss is derived from the E. foot (as is never said by any, because Englishmen dare not say so and Germans know better), we are talking a trifle more sensibly and contradicting history a little less. We must, however, use neither phrase; we must drop the term 'derived' altogether, and employ the term 'cognate.'

Ah, "because Englishmen dare not say so and Germans know better." I laughed out loud while sitting watching my daughter to gymnastics. "We are talking a trifle more sensibly and contradicting history a little less." Why can't people write like that, simply and clearly and with a real wit and personality showing through, in academic books in English (the discipline)?

The book is filled with such mordant gems as that above. Skeat, for example, does battle time and again with the notion that English bite is derived from German beissen, and on the third or fourth time gives a footnote which reads "I feel obliged to continue to protest against this childish error because I find, by experience, that it is deeply rooted, widely spread, and extremely mischievous."

Obviously I have found a kindred spirit.

Walter W. Skeat, Henry Sweet, Albert S. Cook: Shippey is right when he says that we have a long way to go before contemporary English studies has advanced to the level of, say, the 1890s.

At that time, in the first rush to learn and use vergleichende Philologie in the English-speaking world, the subject of English was held in the highest esteem, both among the public and in the universities. Now our beloved subject is less respected than it has ever been.


[* Let me add that there are problems in Skeat, particularly in terminology. He uses "Teutonic" for "Germanic," "Aryan" for "Indo-European" and "Icelandic" for "Old Norse" ("Old Icelandic" is a compromise). Skeat gives good explanations for why he uses the terms he does, but coming across them now is disturbing, illustrating how words change through events external to their phonetic history. No matter what "Aryan" meant to Skeat, it does not mean only that now, and we read the past through the built-up layers of our own history and inheritances.]


John Cowan said...

The book is online at Google Books, scanned from a 1887 first-edition copy at Stanford that was bequeathed to them by George Hempl, a Professor of Germanic Philology there until his death in 1921. On most of the pages, you can see the fingers of the person holding the book for the scanner.

From that page, you can read the book online or download it as a (28 MB) PDF file. Because the book is in the public domain, the copy is complete.

In addition, starting on p. 583 of the PDF (p. 545 in the original pagination) is a 36-page Clarendon Press catalog as of 1887.

Chris Abram said...

Another possible problem with Skeat: he was an implacable and vociferous opponent of women being granted degrees by Cambridge, a leader of the anti- movement, indeed. I find that side of the old curmudgeon somewhat difficult to take to.

highlyeccentric said...

Au contraire- academic snark is alive and well. Or at least, it was in 1970 . May I offer Bolton's fabulously narky review of Payne's King Alfred and Boethius:

This is a curiously thin book. The argument proper, following the introduction, comprises hardly more than 40,000 words; and given that constructions like 'the fact that Alfred failed' could be rewritten as 'Alfred's failure' on every page, it could have been still shorter without loss of content. The footnotes are few; there is no bibliography; the index does not mention secondary sources (nor, for that matter, such central topics to the discussion as 'Wisdom'). With suitable editing, the book could well have been an article.

now, that's just nasty. But yet... so very amusing.

John Cowan said...

Highly Eccentric, I just don't think that cuts it. Real nastiness is like this:

"I am sitting in the smallest room in my house. Your book is before me. Soon it will be behind me."

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