Tuesday, June 23, 2020

Sp. olvidar and Eng. oblivion, Part 6

[This entry is taken from a chapter of Part II of the open-source textbook Spanish-English Cognates: An Unconventional Introduction to Spanish Linguistics.]

This is Part 6. Go to Part 5. Go to Part 1.

Sp. obliterar and Eng. obliterate

To conclude this chapter, let us look at a pair of cognates that because of their form and meaning, one might think are related to the words olvidar and oblivion, namely the cognates Eng. obliterate ~ Sp. obliterar. Eng. obliterate [əˈblɪɾəɹeɪ̯t] is a fancy and uncommon word. Although some dictionaries give more than one meaning for this word, the various senses are all closely related and can be reduced to a single definition: ‘to destroy (something) completely so that nothing is left’ (MWALD). But some dictionaries prefer to divide this definition into at least two meanings: ‘destroy utterly; wipe out’ and ‘blot out; erase’ (COED). And that splitting of the senses of obliterate is good for us to keep separate when comparing this word to its Spanish cognate obliterar. That is because this Spanish word only has the second of these meanings, not the first one, which makes it synonymous with borrar. Note that this is also the verb’s original meaning in Latin, whereas the first meaning of Eng. obliterate mentioned earlier was derived from the second one as a figurative one. That secondary meaning (first in the dictionary) wasn’t developed in English until the late 18th century. That sense translates into Spanish as destruir, arrasar, asolar, or eliminar, but not as obliterar.

We can see a formal similarity between the verb obliterate and the adjective oblivion, since both of them start with the letters obli‑. And if we think that the meaning of both words originally had something to do with erasing, one might wonder whether the two words might be related. The truth, however, is that there is no connection between them at all.

Eng. obliterate is a mid-16th century loanword from Latin, from the passive participle stem oblītĕrāt‑ (also spelled with two t’s oblittĕrāt-) of the verb oblītĕrāre (or oblīttĕrāre) that meant first of all ‘to blot out, erase’ or, more literally, ‘to letter away’, as in the Latin phrase litterae oblitteratae ‘erased letters’. Figuratively, this Latin verb also came to mean ‘to blot out of remembrance, cause to be forgotten’ (CTL), yet another semantic connection with the verb oblīvīscī ‘to forget’.

Lat. oblītĕrāre (or oblīttĕrāre) is derived from the prefix ob‑ ‘away’ and the root lĭttĕr‑ (or lītĕr‑) of the Latin noun lĭttĕra (or lītĕra) that meant first of all ‘letter (of the alphabet)’ (ob‑līttĕr‑āre). Thus, the literal meaning of this verb was ‘to (do) away (with) letters’.  The Latin noun lĭttĕra (or lītĕra) is obviously the source of the cognates Sp. letra ~ Eng. letter, the first one a patrimonial word in Spanish and the second one, a loanword from Old French letre or lettre.[a]

Actually, although Eng. obliterate is said to have been borrowed from Latin, the word is attested in Middle French a few decades earlier in the 16th century, which suggests that whoever introduced the word into English may have seen it in French fist. The French verb is oblitérer and it originally meant ‘to efface the memory of’, the secondary meaning that the source word had in Latin (1512). Later, this French word acquired other senses such as ‘to cause to disappear gradually’ (1530); in medicine, ‘to cause an organ to disappear’ (1754); and finally, ‘to frank a postage stamp’ (1863) (OED). These additional senses were at times (semantically) calqued into Eng. obliterate, but they are archaic or very rare today and only some dictionaries mention them.

Spanish also borrowed this verb, as obliterar, which is probably less common than its English cognate. It first appears in a Spanish dictionary in 1617 and in the Academy’s dictionary (DRAE) in 1884, which suggests it was borrowed though French or English. As we mentioned, Sp. obliterar does not mean ‘to destroy utterly’ but only ‘to erase’. It does also have the last two of the additional senses mentioned for its French cognate, the medical and the postal senses, but they are very rare and unknown by most speakers of Spanish. But then again, the medical sense is also supposedly found in Eng. obliterate, as some (but not all) dictionaries tell us. These senses were borrowed through French, no doubt.

English has  a few additional words related to the verb obliterate, namely the nouns obliteration and obliterator, as well as the adjective obliterative. The noun obliteration was presumably borrowed from Latin obliterātĭōn‑ ‘an erasing, etc.’, , though most Latin dictionaries do not mention this noun and it was no doubt rare. English introduced this noun in the mid-17th century, some fifty years after the verb was borrowed. This Latin noun is formed regularly from the passive stem of the Latin verb, oblitĕrāt‑, and the noun forming suffix ‑ĭōn‑ There is no attested cognate of Eng. obliteration in Spanish. The ‘erasure’ sense can be translated as borradura or eliminación, the ‘destruction’ sense as destrucción, and the ‘stamp cancellation’ sense as matasellado.

As for the noun obliterator and the adjective obliterative, they were definitely created in English, albeit with Latinate suffixes, since they are not attested in Latin. Thus, they have no Spanish cognates either, though they could be easily created should one wanted to do so. They were formed in English out of the same Latin stem obliterat‑ and the Latinate agent suffix ‑or and the Latinate adjective suffix ‑ive. All English-Spanish dictionaries seem to ignore these rare English words.

[a] Although the first meaning of Lat. lĭttĕra was ‘letter of the alphabet’, the word acquired additional meanings such as ‘word’, ‘handwriting’ and, usually in the plural, ‘a letter, epistle’ and ‘a writing, document, etc.’, which is the source of the second sense of the word letter in English (Sp. carta). English borrowed the word letter from Old French letre (Modern French lettre) around the year 1200, where the word was a patrimonial one and it also had both of those meanings: ‘letter of the alphabet’ and ‘missive, written communication’. Spanish letra and the plural letras used to have the sense of ‘written communication’, but that meaning was replaced by carta, from Lat. charta, from Ancient Greek χάρτης (khártēs) ‘papyrus, sheet of paper, book’. Spanish words that contain the root of Lat. lĭttĕra are letradoadj. learned, erudite; noun lawyer’, iletrado ‘illiterate, uneducated, unlettered’, letrero ‘sign, notice’, deletrear ‘to spell’, literal ‘literal’, literario ‘literary’, literato/a ‘writer, man/woman of letters’, literatura ‘literature’ (letradura in Old Spanish), aliteraración ‘alliteration’, transliterar ‘transliterate, and finally obliterar. As we can see, English has cognates of many of these words, as well as some that do not have cognates in Spanish: alliteration, illiteracy (Sp. analfabetismo), illiterate (Sp. analfabeto/a, ignorante, inculto/a), literacy (Sp. alfabetización, etc.), literal, literary, literate (Sp. alfabetizado/a, culto/a, instruído/a, que sabe leer y escribir), literature, obliterate, and transliterate.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this chapter, Professor Aske. I enjoyed reading it.


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