Did Saxon/PIE fail to differentiate between worms and snakes?
April 29, 2021 11:07 AM   Subscribe

Is it generally understood that Anglo-Saxon/Proto-Indo-European cultures failed to differentiate as we do between worms, snakes, and dragons as we do in the modern era? Or was this an artifact of later failures of translation?

Early depictions of a world-tree seem to depict protective or malicious "serpents" at their roots; do we have reason to believe they are indeed explicitly snakes--or were perhaps an increasingly esoteric representation of the literal worms present under trees? If all of these types of life occupied similar language, would we be able to discern this difference? I've also seen a few articles which imply (but do not outright state) that worms = snakes = dragons was an artifact of the migration of the words into English post-Saxon/PIE, rather than the way the cultures thought of the world previous to the translation.

I note that a few attempts to reconstruct early language/religions I've read over the years tend to hint at to near-literal depictions of "mother earth" as death and birth in a "rich soil" connotation and in this context, worms at the base of an ideological world tree would seem to make far more sense (to this modern reader) than what we understand as a literal modern snake or serpent or dragon. Of course, I have no reason to assert this conjecture on my part is anything more than convenient supposition.

If there are any solid/modern treatises or essays on the role of worms, snakes, and dragons in axes mundi, I'd love to hear more about them. Thanks!
posted by Phyltre to Religion & Philosophy (6 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Probably you would get better answers if you clarified your question. PIE was last spoken something like 3000 years before Old English developed (which is, I'm guessing, what you mean by "Anglo-Saxon"). There are no PIE texts; what we think we know about the language is entirely reconstructed by historical linguists.
posted by praemunire at 1:21 PM on April 29 [3 favorites]

since PIE is also tangled up in the roots of Greek, Latin, and French (where dragon is from i think), as well as the danish/german/angles/jutes/saxons, you are going to have lots of words that mean the same basic things. Some words come into languages more than once. Cat, kitten, feline, etc. So maybe all the ways of referring to things that didn't walk like a human or horse were just descriptive, and connotations about being good or bad were cultural add-ons later, like assigning serpents to being evil eve-tempting apple influencers.

i agree it is super fascinating, and i'm anxiously waiting for the linguists to show up in this thread...
posted by th3ph17 at 5:12 PM on April 29

Ditto what praemunire said. And having said that, I haven't read this, but my Proto Indo European professor told our class about it, and it sounds like it might be useful to you: "How to Kill a Dragon - Aspects of Indo-European Poetics" by Calvert Watkins

Mr Wintersonata's Oxford Guide to PIE gives separate lexical entries for "snake," "dragon (?)", and "worm, insect".
posted by wintersonata9 at 6:01 PM on April 29

The most recent study on Old English folk taxonomy of which I'm aware is Earl R. Anderson, Folk-taxonomies in early English (Madison and Teaneck, NJ: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2003). Anderson notes that OE wyrm originally was a residual category including snakes, worms, and other small creeping creatures, but as snaca entered the lexicon, it displaced wyrm for snakes, leaving it as a residual category for worms, insects, arachnids, etc.

This is from my notes, taken a decade ago. I was more interested at the time at how insect came to take on some of the lexical field of late medieval worm, so I wasn't paying very close attention to worm vs. snake and didn't note the date of the transition. The OED gives the first citation of snake (snaca) as c. 1000 in the West Saxon Gospels, and wyrm in Beowulf. It's clear the two competed for a time.

Even though Old English speakers used the same life form taxon (wyrm) to refer both to earthworms and snakes for a while, that does not imply that they didn't recognize the differences between individual species. A modern American can easily tell the difference between a ladybug and a mosquito, even though they're both bugs.
posted by brianogilvie at 8:37 PM on April 29 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: To those asking me to refine my question, I suppose the core of my question would be--do we know how far back (rather than how far forward) the "snakes and worms are from the same basic class" residual categorification goes? In articles that discuss PIE reconstructions, examples from 800AD are used, which implies (at least to me) that the example must have been considered relevant to PIE etymology, which is why I reference it.
posted by Phyltre at 8:28 AM on April 30

In articles that discuss PIE reconstructions, examples from 800AD are used, which implies (at least to me) that the example must have been considered relevant to PIE etymology, which is why I reference it.

The basic method of reconstructing languages in historical linguistics is comparing descendant languages and, using theories of sound change, working backwards. But these are for word-forms. Meanings of words shift over time, especially long periods of time. Since we have zero texts in Proto-Indo-European, there is a haze of uncertainty/genericness over most of our inferences. So just because you could look at a word in North Sea Germanic, reconstruct its likely ancestor in Proto-Germanic, and on and on up the family tree, doesn't mean that you have a firm grasp of what the word meant to people at various points on the tree, especially when we're talking about mystical/metaphorical uses. Once you have texts, you can track meaning change as brianogilvie explains well, but that just shows you how many possibilities for change there are that we can't know in the unattested or lightly attested languages. If you clear away the terminological confusion, this should be fairly obvious. How much do you think people living in England in 800 AD as small farmers, where Christianity had already been introduced, even, had culturally in common with nomads living on the steppe north of the Black Sea 3000 years earlier (most popular theory of who actually spoke PIE)? Probably some things, but it's only 1200 years between you and them, how much do you have in common with them?

The question of the meanings that Old English speakers gave to words like "wyrm" can be studied in reasonable detail, as discussed above. The question of the meanings that PIE speakers gave to "*wrū-" (the * means no attested forms) is a much tougher one, and, while not independent of the first question, is only somewhat relevant to it. Consider that the PIE language family includes everything from the language of Sappho to the language of the Vedas to AAVE, all of which presumably have somewhat different uses for whatever their descendant word is (as far as I know, AAVE does not confound "worm," "snake," and "dragon"). It's not some kind of pure direct transmission.

How far back the particular use you're interested in is attested you can probably get a decent idea of just using etymological texts, which are much more available online than they used to be.
posted by praemunire at 10:05 AM on April 30 [1 favorite]

« Older Cowhide how too   |   Alternatives to ink extortion? Newer »

You are not logged in, either login or create an account to post comments