Thursday, February 22, 2024


Undying Fame

Homer, Iliad 9.412-416 (Achilles speaking; tr. A.T. Murray):
If I abide here and war about the city of the Trojans,
then lost is my home-return, but my renown shall be imperishable;
but if I return home to my dear native land,
lost then is my glorious renown, yet shall my life long
endure, neither shall the doom of death come soon upon me.

εἰ μέν κ᾽ αὖθι μένων Τρώων πόλιν ἀμφιμάχωμαι,
ὤλετο μέν μοι νόστος, ἀτὰρ κλέος ἄφθιτον ἔσται·
εἰ δέ κεν οἴκαδ᾽ ἵκωμι φίλην ἐς πατρίδα γαῖαν,
ὤλετό μοι κλέος ἐσθλόν, ἐπὶ δηρὸν δέ μοι αἰὼν        415
ἔσσεται, οὐδέ κέ μ᾽ ὦκα τέλος θανάτοιο κιχείη.
Coulter H. George, How Dead Languages Work (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020), pp. 34-35:
But, if we turn to the word kleos itself, we find our way into an even richer web of meaning. It goes back to a PIE root *kleu-, which formed words referring to hearing and fame in the various daughter languages, especially in their poetic traditions. As a basic verbal root, it meant “to hear”. But with the ending -os added to it (*kleuos, which—remember the equivalence of u and w—can also be represented *klewos), it was “that which is heard”: in other words, “that which is famous”, or simply “fame”. This form survives not only in Greek kleos but also in Sanskrit śravaḥ (the ś is pronounced like an English sh; the used to be an s, but it weakened at the end of a word to become a murmured h), and in both traditions it is also associated with an adjective meaning “imperishable” (aphthiton in Greek, akṣita- or akṣiti- in Sanskrit). While the attempt to work out the poetic language of the Indo-Europeans must inevitably be a tentative enterprise,18 something like ṇdhgwhitom klewos is very likely to have been a phrase that already existed in the parent language in reference to undying fame; it was then inherited as aphthiton kleos in Greek and akṣitam śravaḥ in Sanskrit.

Nor is the *kleu- root restricted to these two languages. It’s also prominent in the personal names found in several other branches as well. While it is most transparent in the numerous Greek names in -cles, such as Sophocles “wise-famous” or Pericles “very-famous”, it also occurs in Slavic languages as the -slav element in Bohuslav or Mstislav. (The change of k to s in Slavic parallels the change of k to ś in Sanskrit.) Further disguised by phonological change, it occurs in Germanic in the name Ludwig, itself a linguistic cousin of French Louis.19 This requires some further explanation. First, we have to start from a different form, in effect a past participle *klu‑tos or *klū-tos “that which is heard”, which survived in Greek klytos and Latin in-clutus, both “famous”. Second, in Germanic, the initial k sound weakened to an h, as also happened in English heart (whereas the original sound was preserved in Latin cor and Greek kardia), and in this particular phonetic context, the t would soften to a d.20 This means that the equivalent Germanic form ought to have ended up with the stem *hlūd-. In fact, Old English still has words that begin with hl-.21 But because the h- was comparatively difficult to articulate in this environment, it was soon lost, leaving just Lud- as the first element in Lud-wig. Within English, hlūd survived as an adjective in Old English, but with the loss of the h and the change of ū to ou in the Great Vowel Shift that occurred at the end of the Middle English period, it became our modern word loud.

18 For more on the Indo-European poetic tradition, see Chapter 5, as well as the convenient introductions in B.W. Fortson, Indo-European Language and Culture (Malden, MA, 2010), pp. 32-7, and J. Clackson, Indo-European Linguistics (Cambridge, 2007), pp. 180-4.

19 For still more examples of Indo-European personal names built from words not only for “fame” but also for “god”, “battle”, and the like, see B.W. Fortson, Indo-European Language and Culture (Malden, MA, 2010), pp. 38-9.

20 The change of k to h in Germanic will be discussed more in Chapter 4 in the section on Grimm’s Law.

21 Readers of Beowulf may recall the similar cluster hr- in the name of king Hrothgar.
Related post: Imperishable Fame.

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