Mmegi Blogs :: Demystifying the etymology of sums and units
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Demystifying the etymology of sums and units

Last week I omitted to include the Setswana term for ‘ten’ (shume/some) in my unpacking of the etymology of numbers, and instead approached the number only from the point of view of English and Latin…whose terms I nevertheless related to Setswana. This week, I correct this oversight.
By L M Leteane Fri 20 May 2016, 14:43 pm (GMT +2)
Mmegi Blogs :: Demystifying the etymology of sums and units








To recap, I based the name ‘ten’ on the Latin term tene (‘take hold of’, which is the base-word in ‘tenet, tenant, tense, tentative, etc.’). How it relates to the number ‘ten’ is because when we want to properly grip something we normally use both of our hands and all of our digits – which digits are ten in number. I then found the root term tene to be embedded in the Setswana term tenetsa: ‘take hold of something and position it such that something else covers it’)…just as we do when we take hold of the hem of a shirt and tuck (tenetsa) it into the trousers or skirt such that it is now covered by it. Tenetsa then took a semantic shift to mean ‘cover’, but it still relates to ‘ten’ because when we attempt to cover or protect something with our hands, we spread out all our fingers over the object.

 I then duly related tenetsa to the English term ‘tuck’ and further related it to the Setswana term taka. How? Taka also means ‘cover’ and when we paint over an object (i.e. ‘cover it with something’), it is mo-tako in Setswana. Taka is also the concrete mix we use to plaster (‘cover’) a wall with. A slight sound-change in both the Indo-European and Bantu language families gave us the term teka in Setswana and ‘deck’ in English. Although we may think that teka (‘cover, dress up [a table, for instance]’) is a lexical borrowing from English (i.e. to ‘bedeck’ a table is to cover or dress it up), the Setswana term has its own traceable roots to ancient proto-terms. Indeed, as in English, when one splays or spreads out all the ten fingers of both hands, one ‘decks out/teka’ all ten fingers, thus deca…which is Latin for ‘ten’! Similarly, a full ‘deck/teko’ is when all 52 cards are splayed out on the table!

We noted that ‘ten’ in Setswana is some, and we can relate this to the English verb ‘sum’ which means ‘round up’ or ‘complete’. ‘Ten’, therefore, is the ‘complete’ sum/some of all the fingers in the hand. Although it may seem like Setswana has lost this etymological association, to ‘join’ two pieces together may entail inserting one into the other (as in pipes), and this is what somela means…the base word indeed being some. Since to ‘sum’ means to ‘round up’ or ‘complete’, we can easily understand the semantic shift of this to mean ‘to work’ (i.e. to ‘complete’ something often requires effort/work), hence ‘work’ is shumo in both Northern Sotho and Sumerian/Akkadian. Shume, the base-word of the term, is but a dialectic variation of some. Given this, the Japanese term ‘Sumo’, which is the name of a type of wrestling that involves extremely heavy contenders, can thus be taken to mean ‘The Work’ as indeed much work has to be done in overcoming one’s super-hefty opponent.

‘Sum’ also has the connotation of ‘topmost’ (as in ‘summit’). Indeed, the tenth

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finger is, as it were, the topmost finger in the sense that it is counted last and is thus ‘on top’ of others…as if they were packed one on top of the other. Indeed, etymologically, ‘sum’ is taken to be Indo-European superlative tense of ‘super’, which term we can relate, in Setswana, to s’oo-pega: ‘that which is to be perched/put on top of’ (s’oo being a compression of sa-ho (‘that which is’) and pega (‘stack up [on]’) evidently relating to ‘pack’…or pheka in ‘Tswanafied’ English!). Now, to ‘join’ in Setswana is also to lomega – and its Indo-European equivalent is the noun nomego. Obviously, the l to n sound-shift requires explanation, and the best way I will do this is by providing another example of this shift in the next instalment, to show that it is linguistically normal. Meantime, numego, I discern, is echoed in the Latin term numero: the root of ‘number’ in English. (The ‘g’ and the ‘r’ are pronounced exactly as the French presently pronounce ‘r’.)

The term loma, root of lomega (‘put together, assemble’), is interesting in itself. Of course, to ‘put together’, we noted, is also to ‘sum [up]’…but loma is ‘bite’ (i.e. cut [off]) in Setswana, the suffix ega simply meaning ‘capable of being’, and thus lomega meaning ‘capable of being bitten [off]’. The evident sense, here, is that something that is ‘joined’ together is only because it broke off into pieces in the first place…or that it was designed such that it can be broken off into pieces. Now, is there a similar sense of loma in Indo-European? Indeed there is. In botany, a ‘loment’ is defined as ‘a legume whose pod (covering) is contracted between the seeds, and which breaks at maturity into one-seeded indehiscent joints’. The only difficult word in this definition is ‘indehiscent’, and it is another botanical term meaning ‘not opening up at maturity’.

Simply put, at maturity the bean pod breaks up at the narrow joints to form single-seed pods that, however, do not open up (unlike certain other pods that open up at maturity to release seeds). Through this, we can now easily see that the term ‘loment’ entails the root word loma while the suffix ‘ent’ simply means ‘having the characteristic of’, as in ‘translucent, eminent, petulant, etc.’), and that it refers to the segmentally dented appearance of the bean pod – a shape typical of common ‘green-peas’. Unsurprisingly, ‘lomentum’ is Latin for ‘bean meal’ (it also refers to a face cream made out of bean meal), but the dictionary explanation that its etymology comes from lautus (‘washed’) is evidently off the mark, as Setswana reveals: it actually emanates from the segmented, ‘joined-together’ nature of the bean pod that make up the ‘meal’!  (Note: the term ‘segmented’ emanates from the Setswana term ‘sega’ which is akin to the Latin term sega(re) (‘to cut’).) Indeed, a ‘segment’ is a ‘cut’ from something bigger. We continue this next week.

Comments to leteanelm@gmail.com

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