Donate books to help fund our work. Learn more→

The Rudolf Steiner Archive

a project of Steiner Online Library, a public charity

The Genius of Language
GA 299

History of Language in Its Relation to the Folk Souls

31 December 1919, Stuttgart

You have seen that the most important concern of this course is to show how the history of language-forming originates in human soul qualities. Indeed, it is impossible to arrive at an understanding of the vocabulary of any modern language without understanding its inner soul nature. So I would like to add today some examples to show you how the phenomena of language are related to the development of the folk souls.

First let me call your attention to two words that belong together: Zuber ‘tub’ and Eimer ‘pail’. They are old German words; when you use them today, you are aware that an Eimer is a vessel with a single handle fastened on top in which something can be carried; Zuber has two handles. That is what they are today when we use the two words, Zuber and Eimer. To investigate the word Eimerwe have to go back a thousand years and find it in Old High German as the word ein-bar. You remember that I introduced you to the sound group bar (lecture 2), related to beran, ‘to carry’. Through the contraction of ein-bar ‘one carry’, Eimer ‘pail’ came about. We have it clearly expressed, transparently visible in the old form: the carrying with one handle, for bar is simply something to carry with. Zuber in Old High German is Zwei-bar ‘two-carry’, a vessel carried by two handles, a tub. [The origin of tub from Middle High German tubbe surely has to do also with ‘two’.] You see how words today are contractions of what in the older form were separate pieces or phrases that we no longer distinguish.

There are many such examples; we can put our minds to a few typical ones. Take the word Messer 'knife’. It goes back to Old High German mezzi-sahs. Mezzi is related to ezzan, the old form of essen, ‘to eat’, with an introductory /m/. As for sahs (sax is another pronunciation of the same word), we need to remember that when Christianity spread across southern Germany, the monks encountered the worship of three ancient divinities, one of whom was Sachsnot or Ziu, the God of War [still present in English Tuesday ‘Mars-day’]. Sachsnot means ‘the living sword’; sahs has the same sound configuration. Therefore in the word Messer you have the composite ‘eating sword,” the sword with which you eat.

Interesting, too, is the word Wimper [‘eyelash’ today, but seems to describe eyebrow], which goes back to wint-bra. Bra is the ‘brow’ and wint is something that ‘winds itself around’. You can picture it: the ‘curving brow’. In the contraction Wimper we no longer distinguish the single parts.

Another word that characterizes such contractions, where originally the relationships were felt perceptively, you know as the fairly common German word Schulze ‘Mayor’. When we look back at Old High German we find sculd-heizo. That was the man in the village to whom one had to go to find out what one’s debt (Schuld) was. He told a fellow who had been up to some kind of mischief what his fine would be. The person who had to decide, to say (heissen) what debt or fine was due was the Sculd-heisso, Schuld-heisser ‘debt namer’. This became Schulze. I am giving you these examples so that you can follow me as we trace the course of language development.

Something else can be observed in this direction, something that still often happens in dialects. In Vienna, for instance, a great deal of dialect has been retained in a purer state than in northern Germany, where abstractness came about quite early. The Austrian dialect goes back to a primitive culture, as far back as the tenth century. The language-forming genius with its lively image quality was still active in southern German areas but did not enter the northern German culture. There is a picturesque word in Vienna: Hallodri. That's ‘a rascal, a rowdy’, who likes to raise a ruckus, who's a trouble-maker, who's possibly guilty of a few minor offences. The Hallo in the word points to how a person shouts [like English Hello! with a touch of holler]. The ri has to do with the shouting person’s behavior; it is a dialect holdover from the Old High German ari, which became aeri in Middle High German, finally becoming weakened in modern German to the suffix -er [This corresponds exactly to -er in English, as in baker, farmer, storyteller] If you take the Old High German word wahtari, there at the end of it is the syllable you encountered in the Austrian dialect word Hallodri. It means somehow or other ‘being active in life'—that is the syllable ari; waht is ‘to watch'. The person who takes on the office of watching is the wahtari In Middle High German it became wachtaere, still with the complete suffix. Now in Modern German it is Wächter ‘watcher, watchman, guard’. The ari has become the syllable -er; in which you perceive very little of the original meaning: handling or managing something. This you should feel in words with the suffix -er; retained from ancient times, for example: The person who handles or manages the garden is the gartenaere, the gardener: It is an illustration of the way language today makes an effort to adapt sound qualities—everything I would call musical—slowly into abstractness, where the full sense of the sound can no longer be perceived, especially not in the full sense of the concept or its feeling quality.

The following is an interesting example. You know the prefix -ur ‘original, archetypal’ in the words Ursache ‘first cause, original cause’, Urwald ‘primeval forest, jungle’, Urgrossvater ‘great-grandfather, ancestor’, and so on. If we go back almost two thousand years in the history of our language, we find this same syllable in Gothic as uz In Old High German, about the year 1000 A.D. we find the same syllable as ar; ir; or ur. Seven hundred years ago it was ur and so it remains today, having changed rather early. As a prefix to verbs it has become weak. We say, for instance, to express something being announced, Kunde ‘message’; if we want to designate the first message, the original, the one from which the other messages arise, we say Urkunde ‘document, charter’. In verbs the ur is weakened to er. To augment the verb kennen ‘to know’; (cognate: ken) we do not say—as might have been possible—Urkennen, but rather erkennen ‘to understand, recognize’. Er has exactly the same level of meaning in such a word as ur does in urkunde. If I make it possible for someone to do a certain thing, I erlaube ‘allow’” him something. If I change this into a noun, in a certain situation, it becomes Urlaub ‘vacation’, something I give a person through my act of ‘allowing’. Another word formation related to all this is exceedingly interesting—you know the expression “to make land urbar" ‘arable’. Urbar is also related to beran (‘to bear’; see lecture 2). Urbaris the ‘primordial cause inducing the land to bear’. There is an analogous meaning in the word ertragen ur-bear, to yield, endure’. If you say nowadays something about the Ertrag des Ackers ‘the yield of one’s land’, you are using the same word as in urbar machen des Ackers ‘making the field yield its first crop’. Originally the word urbar was also used to say ‘work the land so that it bears enough, for instance, to pay its taxes or rent’. [Note: English acre has become a measurement, whereas Acker is the land itself. Arnold Wadler in his One Language takes this word back to Agros (Greek, ‘soil’), further back to Ikker (Hebrew, ‘peasant’), and finally to A-K-R (Egyptian, ‘earth-god’) to show how ancient words with a spiritual meaning descend through the ages to a sense that is more and more physical and abstract. ‘God’—‘human being’—‘land’—‘measurement’. A similar change occurs from Agni, Hindu god of fire, to Ignis (Latin, ‘fire’) and finally ignition, ‘part of an internal-combustion engine’.]

To study the prefixes and suffixes of a language is in every sense most interesting! For instance, there is the prefix ge- in numerous words. This goes back to the Gothic ga, in which one truly felt the gathering. [Here the best example is offered in English: Anglo-Saxon gaed, ‘fellowship’, related to gador in ‘together’.] Ga- carries the feeling of assembling, pushing together. In Old High German it became gi, and in modern German ge [Wadler once described the consonant as the musical instrument on which the vowel-melody is played, hence the ever-changing vowels in epochs of time and in comparable languages.]| When you put ge in front of the word salle or selle ‘room, hall’, you come to Geselle ‘fellow, journeyman’ a person who shares a room with another or sleeps in the same lodging with him. Genosse ‘comrade’ is a person who geniesst ‘enjoys’ something together with another.

I want to call your attention to what is characteristic in these examples. Someone who experiences within the sounds of a word the immediate feeling for its meaning surely has a different relationship to the word than does a person without that feeling. If you simply say Geselle because you've known what it means since childhood, it is a different thing than if you have a feeling for the room and the connection within the room of two or more people. This element of feeling is being thrown off; the result is the possibility of abstractness.

Another example is part of many of our words, the suffix - lich (English -ly) as in göttlich ‘divine, godly, and freundlich ‘friendly’. If you look for it two thousand years ago, you will find it in Gothic as leiks. It became lich in Old High German, related originally to leich and also leib ‘body’. I told you (see lecture 2, pages 32-33) that leich/leib expresses the form' (Gestald left behind when a person dies. Leichnam ‘corpse’ is really a somewhat redundant expression, a structure such as a child creates when it combines two similar sounding words like bow-wow or quack-quack, where the meaning arises through repetition. Dissimilar sounding words, however, may also be combined in this way, and such a combination is the word Leichnam. Leich, as we said, is the form that remains after the soul has left the body. Nam, in turn, derives from ham and ham is the word still preserved in Hemd ‘shirt’, meaning shroud or sheath, Hülle. Leichnam means therefore the form-shroud’ that we cast off after death. Hence there is a combination of two similar things, form’ and—somewhat altered—‘sheath’, put together like bow-wow.

Out of this leiks/leich our suffix -lich has developed. When we use the word göttlich ‘godly’, it points toward a form’ with its - lich, which is leiks ‘form’: a form that is godly or divine, ‘of the shape or form of God'. This is particularly interesting in the Old High German word anagilih, which still contains ana from the Gothic; ana means ‘nearly’, ‘almost’. Gilihis the form. Today’s word ähnlich ‘similar, analogous’ means what ‘almost has the form'.

This is a good example for studying not so much the history as more particularly the psychology of language. It still shows how nuances of feeling, in earlier times, were vividly alive in the words people used. Later this feeling, this emotional quality slowly separated from any language experience, so that whatever unites a mental picture with speech sounds has become a totally abstract element. I have just spoken about the prefix ge-, Gothic ga-. Imagine that the ‘gathering together’ of ga-, which is now ge-, could still be felt and were now applied to the element of form’, to the leich, then according to what we could feel historically, it could mean ‘agreement of form'. This meaning lives in the word like an open secret. Geleich = gleich means ‘forms that agree’, forms that act together’: gleich ‘very similar, identical, equal’.

Consider for a moment a word that unveils many secrets. Today we will look at it from only one point of view. It is Ungetüm ‘monster’. [In German the two dots over an /ä/, /ö/ or /ü/, called an Umlaut, change the quality and sound of the vowel.1See discussion of the umlaut in lecture 6, page 90. ] The /ü/ in Ungetüm was originally /u/ and this tum, if looked at separately, goes back to Old High German fuom, which is related to the verb tun ‘to do, bring about, achieve, bring into a relationship’. In every word containing the suffix -tum, the relationship of things working together can still be felt—as in Königtum ‘kingdomy', Herzogtum ‘dukedom, duchy'. The Ungetüm is a creature with whom no real working together is possible. Un, the prefix, denotes the ‘negative’; getum could be the ‘working together’.

We have numerous words, as you know, with the suffix -ig (English -y), such as feurig ‘fiery’, gelehrig ‘docile, teachable’, [cf. saucy; bony, earthy] and so on. This goes back to Old High German -ac or -ic and to Middle High German -ag or -ig. It signifies approximately what we describe with the adjective eigen ‘own, one’s own'. Hence, where the suffix -ig appears, it points to a kind of ownership. Feurig is feuereigen, something whose property is fiery’. I have told you that it is possible to observe how the genius of a language undergoes increasing abstractness, which is the result of this sort of contracting and what comes about then as the assimilation of sound elements, such as feurig from feuer-eigen.

It could be expressed like this: In very ancient stages of a people’s language development, the feelings were guided totally by the speech sounds. One could say language was made up only of differentiated, complicated images through the consonant sounds, picturing outer processes, and of vowel elements, interjections, expressions of feeling occurring within those consonant formations. The language-forming process then moves forward. Human beings pull themselves out, more or less, of this direct experience, the direct sensing of sound language. What are they actually doing as they pull themselves out and away? Well, they are still speaking but as they do so, they are pushing their speech down into a much more unconscious region than the one where mental pictures and feelings were closely connected with the forming of the sounds. Speech itself is being pushed down into an unconscious region, while the upper consciousness tries to catch the thought. Look closely at what is going on as soul-event. By letting the sound associations fall into unconsciousness, human beings have raised their consciousness to mental pictures (Vorstellen) and perceptions that no longer are immersed in language sounds and sound associations. Now people have to try to capture the meaning, a meaning somehow still indicated by the sounds but no longer as intimately connected with them as it had been. We can observe this process even after the original separating-out of the sound associations has taken place; just as people previously had related to the sounds, now they had to make a connection to words. By that time there had come into existence words with sound associations no one finds any relationship to; they are words connected through memory to the conceptual. There, on a higher level, words pass through the same process that sounds and syllables underwent earlier.

Suppose you want to say something about the people of a certain area, but you don't want to sound completely abstract. You wouldn't want to say “the human beings of Württemberg" [the German state where the lecture was being given]; that would be too abstract. And you probably wouldn't want to reach top level abstraction with “the inhabitants of Württemberg.” If you want to catch something more concrete than “human beings,” you might think of “the city and country people of Württemberg” (die Bürger und Bauern). This would denote not actually city people nor country people but something that hovers in between. In order to catch that hovering something, both words are used. This becomes especially clear and interesting when the two words, used to express a concept, approach from two sides and are quite far apart from each other, for instance when you say Land und Leute ‘land and people’. [Something similar in English: the world and his wife]. When you use such a phrase, what you want to express is something hanging between the two words that you are trying to approach. Take Wind und Wetter ‘wind and weather’: when you say it, you can't use just one word; you mean neither wind nor weather, but something that lies between, put into a kind of framework. [In English we have many similar double phrases from earliest times: might and main; time and tide; rack and ruin; part and parcel; top to toe; neither chick nor child—and many of them are alliterative, that is, repeating the same consonant at the beginning of both words.].

It is interesting to note that as language develops, such double phrases use alliteration, assonance, or the like. This means that the feeling for tone and sound is still playing its part; people who have a lively sense for language are still able, even today, to continue using such phrases and with them are able to capture a mental image or idea for which one specific word is not immediately available.

Suppose I want to describe how a person acts, what his habits are, what his essential nature is. I will probably hesitate to use just one word that would make him out to be a living person but passive—for I don't want to characterize him as living essentially a passive life nor on the other hand an active life; I want to deduce his activity out of his intrinsic nature. I can't say, his soul lebt ‘exists’; that would be too passive. Nor can I say, his soul webt ‘is actively in motion, weaves, wafts’; that would be too active. I need something in between, and today we can still say, Die Seele lebt und webt ‘Just as he lives and breathes'.

Numerous examples of this kind proceed from the language-forming genius. If you want to express what is neither Sang ‘song’ nor Klang ‘sound’, we say Sang und Klang ‘with drums drumming and pipes piping’. Or you might want to describe a medieval poet creating both the melody and the words of a song—people often wanted to say that the Minnesingers did both. One couldn't say Sie ziehen herum und singen ‘they wander about and sing’ but rather, Sie ziehen herum und singen und sagen ‘they wander about singing and telling’. What they did was a concept for which no single word existed. You see, such things are only what I would call latecomers or substitutes for the sound combinations we no longer quite understand. Today we form contractions of such phrases as Sang und Klang, singen und sagen, sound-phrases which in earlier times retained the connection between sound-content and the conceptual feeling element.

To take something very characteristic in this respect, look at the following example. When the ancient Germans convened to hold a court of justice, they called such a day tageding ‘daything’. What they did on that day was a ding We still use the expression Ding drehen, literally, ‘to turn a thing’; slang, ‘to plan something fishy'. A ding is what took place when the ancient Germans got together to make legal decisions. They called it a tageding. Now take the prefix ver-: it always points to the fact that something is beginning to develop (Anglo-Saxon for- used in forbear, forget, forgive, and so forth). Hence, the occurrences at the fageding began to develop further and one could say, they were being vertagedingt. And this word has slowly become our verteidigen ‘to defend, to vindicate’, with a small change of meaning. You see how the sound combination vertageding began to undergo the same process as the word combinations do later.

Thus we find that little by little the conceptual life digresses ever further from the pure life of language sounds. Consider the example of the Old High German word alawari. All-wahr, ganz wahr ‘completely true, altogether true’ was the original meaning, but it has become today's word albern ‘foolish’. Just think what shallowness of the folk soul you are looking into when you see that something with the original meaning of ‘altogether true’ has become ‘foolish’, as we hear and feel the word today. The alawari must have been used by tribes, I would say, who considered the appearance of human all-truth as something stupid and who favored the belief that a clever person is not alawari. Hence the feeling that ‘one who is completely honest is not very clever’, ie., albern ‘silly, foolish, weak-minded’. It has carried us over to something for which originally we had a quite different feeling.

When studying such shifts of meaning, we are able to gaze deeply into the language-forming genius in its connection with qualities of soul. Take our word Quecksilber ‘quicksilver, mercury’, for instance, a lively, fluid metal. Queck is the same word as Quecke ‘couch grass’, also called quick, quitch, twitch, or witch grass’, which has to do with movement, the same word as quick contained in the verb erquicken ‘to refresh, revive’; cognate, to quicken, ‘the quick and the dead’. This sound combination queck and quick, with the small shift to keck ‘bold, saucy’ originally meant ‘to be mobile’. If I said five hundred years ago 'er ist ein kecker Mensch’, I would have meant that he is a ‘lively person’, not one to loaf around, to let the grass grow under his feet, one who ‘likes work and gets going’. Through a shift of meaning, this keck has become ‘bold, saucy'. The path inward toward a soul characteristic led at the same time to an important change of meaning.

Another word frech originally meant kühn im Kampfe ‘bold in battle’. Only two hundred years ago frech ‘fresh, impudent, insolent’ meant a courageous person, someone not afraid to stand his man in a fight. Note the shift of meaning. Such shifts allow us to look deeply into the life and development of the human soul.

Take the Old High German word diomuoti. Deo/dio always meant ‘man-servant’; muoti is related to our word Mut ‘courage’; cognate, mood, but formerly it had a different meaning, to be explained today by attitude, the way we are attuned to the world or to other people. We can say that dio muoti actually signified the attitude of a servant, the mood a servant should have toward his master. Then Christianity found its way north. The monks wanted to tell the people something of what their attitude should be toward God and toward spiritual beings. What they wanted to express in this regard they could only do in relation to the feeling they already had for the ‘servant’s attitude’. And so diomuoti gradually became Demut ‘humility’. The religious feeling of humility derives from the attitude of a servant in ancient Germanic times; this is how shifts of meaning occur.

To study this process it is especially interesting to look at words, or rather the sound- and syllable-combinations where the shift of meaning arose through the introduction of Christianity. When the Roman clergy brought their religion to the northern regions of Europe, changes occurred whose fundamental significance can be outwardly understood only by looking at the shifts of meaning in the language. In earlier times before the advent of Christianity, there existed a well-defined master/servant relationship. About a person who had been captured in battle, put into service, and made submissive, his master—wishing to imply Der ist mir nützlich ‘he is useful to me'—would say Der ist fromm, das ist ein frommer Mensch ‘he is a pious man'. Only a last remnant of this word fromm exists today where, to put it a bit jokingly, it is only somewhat reminiscent of its original meaning in the phrase zu Nutz und Frommen ‘for use and profit’, that is, ‘for the greater good'. The verb frommen is combined here with ‘usefulness’, which originally was its identical meaning, but the idea of finding something useful is pointed out with tongue in cheek. The servant who was fromm was a most useful one. The Roman clergy did find that some people were more useful to them than others and these they called fromm ‘pious’. And so this word has come about in a peculiar way through the immigration of Christianity from Rome. With such words as Demut ‘humility’ and Frommsein ‘piety’ you can study some of the special impulses carried by Christianity from south to north.

To understand language and its development you have to pay attention to its soul element, to the inner experience that belongs to it. There exists in the forming of words what I characterized as the consonantal element on the one hand, the imitation of external processes, and on the other hand, the element of feeling and sensing, for instance, as interjections., when perceptions are expressed in their relationship to the external world. (See also expletives, lecture 3, p 48)

Let us consider a distinctly consonantal effect one can experience in one’s feeling for language, quite far along in its development.


Suppose that someone is looking at this form I am drawing here. A simple person long ago would have had two kinds of feeling about it. Looking at the form from below, that person perceived it as something pressed inward; the feeling itself slowly grew into the sound formation we have in our word Bogen ‘bow, as in rainbow’. However, looking at the form from above downward and perhaps bending it out as much as possible (drawing it), what I see now, looking down, comes into speech as Bausch ‘hump, bunch, ball’. From below it is a Bogen; from above, it is a Bausch. The two words still contain something of our perceptive feeling. When you want to express what is contained in both words together but is no longer attached to our perception, and goes outward to describe the whole process, you may say in Bausch und Bogen, ‘in bump and bow’ [lock, stock and barrel’ is a similar English idiomatic phrase]. In Bausch und Bogen would be an imaginative phrase for this (pointing to the drawing), seen from above and below. You can apply these two points of view also in the moral or social realm, in closing a business deal with someone, so that the final outcome is considered from both inside and outside. Looking at it from within, the result is profit; from outside there is the corresponding loss. When you close a business deal, whether for profit or loss, you can say it's done in Bausch und Bogen; you don't have to pay attention to either of the single components (as in the English phrase for better or for worse).

With all this I have wanted to explain to you that by following the development of speech sound elements as well as words and phrases, pictures will arise of the folk soul development as such. You will be able to discover many things if you trace along these lines the movement from the concrete life of speech sounds to the abstract life of ideas. You need only to open an ordinary dictionary or pick up words from the talk going on around you, and then trace the words as we have done. Especially for our teachers I want to mention that it is extraordinarily stimulating to point out such bits of language history occasionally to the children right in the middle of your lesson; at times it can truly enlighten a subject and also stimulate more lively thinking. But you must remember that it’s easy to get off on the wrong track; one must be exceedingly careful, for—as we've seen—words pass through a great variety of metamorphoses. It is very important to proceed conscientiously and not seize on superficial resemblances in order to form some theory or other.

You will see from the following example how necessary it is to proceed cautiously. Beiwacht ‘keeping watch together’ was originally an honest German word, like Zusammenwacht ‘together watch’, used to describe people sitting together and keeping watch. It is one of the words that did not wander from France into Germany as so many others did, but it somehow managed to wander into France, as did the word guerre (French, ‘war’) from the German Wirren ‘disorder, confusion’. In early times Beiwacht got to France and there became bivouac. And then it wandered back again, in one of the numerous treks of western words moving toward German regions after the twelfth century. When it returned, it became Biwak ‘an encampment for a short stay’. Thus an original German word wandered into France and then returned. In between it was used very little. Such things can happen, you see: Words emigrate, then it gets too stuffy for them in the foreign atmosphere—and back home they come again. There are many sorts of relationships like this that you can discover.