Detailed etymological dictionary?
September 3, 2009 5:01 PM   Subscribe

Does a comprehensive etymological dictionary exist that crosses languages?

I am looking for an etymological dictionary, but one that spans multiple languages.

Of the two I own now, one of them is very straightforward. It gives the word, then one or two roots. Sometimes it gives a third root or a proposed theoretical root. The other defines the word, and then gives a short story about the word's origin.

What I am looking for is something like the two of them combined but also with derivations in other languages.

So maybe the root for English "x" is in Latin "y", but Russian and German used "y" to form this other word "z" which means "n". Even better if it were to detail the structure of the root from which it was taken - as in "When Russian borrowed "y" to form "z" they used the ablative case, where the English borrowed the nominative".

I guess I am looking for an etymological dictionary that goes back a step or two, then turns and comes forward again in another place with lots of detail.

I know it would be a tall order, but does something like this exist? I have Googled, but cannot find anything this broad.
posted by Tchad to Writing & Language (11 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
This would be cumbersome in bookform...but nifty as a database or online dictionary or something.

You could visualize all the words in the world as some uber complex cloud that envelops the planet in XYZ and in time. Select a word and it will show all the connections that word has to other languages, or other cultures, or other times....

You could stack info vertically, showing how words changed over time in an area...or you could stack horizontally...showing how a word changed across different areas.

This doesn't answer your question but I think it gives you a clear outline of what your new life's work is. Go!
posted by ian1977 at 5:20 PM on September 3, 2009 [1 favorite]

What you describe I would call a kind of multilingual cognate dictionary. There are a few lists of cognates in two languages out there, but I'm not aware of any larger effort.
posted by Paragon at 5:26 PM on September 3, 2009

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots is sort of what you are describing. Here it is at Google Books as a limited preview.
posted by jedicus at 5:36 PM on September 3, 2009

Response by poster: Jedicus comes close, but the perspective is wrong. I would like something with an initial modern language focus and more cultural/usage notes.
posted by Tchad at 7:13 PM on September 3, 2009

Okay, well, how about the Etymological Dictionary of the Altaic Languages, a 3 volume, 2106 page comparative etymological dictionary of the 50 or so Altaic languages, which include Turkic, Mongolian, Tungus-Manchu, Korean and Japanese. "The body of the dictionary presents almost 3000 lexical matches between different subgroups of Altaic, with Proto-Altaic reconstructions and detailed reflexes in ancient and modern languages. Wherever possible comments are given to distinguish between inherited vocabulary and various later interlingual borrowings."

A steal at only $399.
posted by jedicus at 7:59 PM on September 3, 2009

Response by poster: Now THAT is more like it!

I am going to see if I can find something similar with an Indo-European focus.

Otherwise, Ian1977 may be right - I may have just found soemthing to keep me busy for the rest of my life.
posted by Tchad at 9:11 AM on September 4, 2009

It's a bit dated (1864) but there's An Etymological Dictionary of the Romance Languages, which is available on Google Books in its entirety. If reading on a screen gives you a headache, it's also available on Amazon for a reasonable price.
posted by jedicus at 10:25 AM on September 4, 2009

What you want is the Indogermanisches etymologisches Wörterbuch, on which AHD and all other such limited selections are based. It's in German because most Indo-European studies have been done by Germans. You could keep busy for a while translating it into English, but there's no point trying to recreate it.

It's a bit dated (1864)

Anything from that far back is not "dated," it's worthless as far as etymology goes.
posted by languagehat at 12:29 PM on September 4, 2009

Anything from that far back is not "dated," it's worthless as far as etymology goes.

Worthless is too strong a term. For example, spot-checking 'mamma' gives essentially identical etymologies in both An Etymological Dictionary of the Romance Languages and the IeW-derived Indogermanisches Wörterbuch (checking under '*mā-'). Would you care to provide some specific evidence that it is substantively incorrect in a way that, say, the IEW is not?

And if you want something up to date, the Wikipedia article that you linked on the IeW says that "the IEW is now slightly outdated, especially as it was conservative even when it was written, ignoring the laryngeal theory, and hardly including any Tocharian or Anatolian material."

Furthermore, the IeW is, as you point out, like the AHD, which the asker has already stated goes the wrong direction (i.e. root -> existing form rather than existing form -> root -> related existing forms).
posted by jedicus at 1:09 PM on September 4, 2009

> Worthless is too strong a term.

Agreed, but come on, there's no point consulting something from so far back they barely understood what Indo-European was. Yes, the IEW is "now slightly outdated," as is any book after it's published, but it's about 500 times more useful than some nineteenth-century book. And as for "going the wrong direction," historical linguistics references are not like automobiles, they don't come out with new styles every year. We're lucky there's an IEW at all, just like we're lucky there's an OED. Complaining it's not organized in exactly the manner one prefers is pretty silly (not to say churlish).
posted by languagehat at 1:21 PM on September 5, 2009

Response by poster: Of course I am being a little difficult, yes. I assure you it is unintentional.

I asked because it has been a curiosity to me for the past couple of years. I am not an academic, and FAR from a linguist. Just curious about what is available - I find it easier to learn if I have a lot of background information.

Luckily, I understand German, so I will be checking out the IEW. I have also downloaded the pdf of the directory Jedicus cites, just for fun.

Because that is what all of this is to me - fun. I get bored and so I learn a new alphabet or a new case system. Then I put it down and work for a few months, picking it back up when I am tired of working and bored out of my mind.

And I am only joking a little about using the database format that Ian1977 suggests. It really is exactly what I want - something to get lost in for a few hours or days at a time. I like to see where a given word has been over its life.

Thanks guys. I really appreciate it.
posted by Tchad at 3:59 PM on September 5, 2009

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