13 Jun 2015

Still trying to understand the nature of understanding: the etymologies

To understand the nature of a particular human concept, it is often useful to take a look into the etymologies of the words used to convey the concept.

Among the most interesting human concepts is the concept of understanding.

The idea that standing in some position enables one to know some object better was the inspiration for many words in the Indo-European languages with meaning related to “understanding, getting to know something”. That includes the Old English words forstandan (which eventually evolved into forstå [Danish and Norwegian], förstå [Swedish] , verstehen [German], verstaan [Dutch], etc.) and understandan (that evolved into the English word understand).

It is likely that the prefix for- in forstandan means “in front of” (i.e. to stand before, to watch, observe, learn, and understand something). But we can’t be exactly sure about that, just as how we are still unsure how the prefix under- should be interpreted in understandan. The prefix in Old English can mean both “under” and “between, among” (i.e. the word can be a metaphor for standing under something and getting to the bottom, or standing in the midst of things and getting to learn about the difference between them).

It is also possible that the word understandan was formed by combining forstandan with undirgi(e)tan (which also means “understand”). To learn more about the etymology of the word understand, one can check out the book An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction by Anatoly Liberman. There is an entire chapter on it.

On the other hand, the Latin word comprehendere (meaning “to take together, to unite; include; seize” and “to comprehend, perceive”), formed by joining the prefix com- (for “completely”) with prehendere (which means to catch hold of), is the etymon for comprendre [Catalan and French], comprender [Interlingua and Spanish], comprendere [Italian], compreender [Portuguese] and not surprisingly, the English word comprehend. Here, instead of expressing the concept of understanding through a spacial idea (such as in the word understandan or forstandan), the concept was conveyed by the physical idea of taking hold of something, like the more abstract usage of grasp and seize (in “grasping the significance of something” and “seizing the truth”).

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Lastly, let’s take a look at Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese, which all use localised variations of the characters 理解 to represent the concept of understanding.

Reads rikai (りかい) in Japanese, Lǐjiě in Mandarin, and lei5 gaai2 in Cantonese (sounding almost like Japanese).

In the case of Korean and Vietnamese, 理解 is the Hanja and Chữ nôm for 이해 (reads rihae) and lí giải respectively.

In Classical Chinese, was initially1 the character for jade carving. It was also used to express the tone and texture of jade, and later it was generalised2, and eventually it was used to describe the principle, the nature, the order, the essence, the logic, the science, and (sometimes) the reason, of something.3 The second character, , initially4 meant severing the horns of an ox, and later was generalised to mean “to separate, loosen; to remove (constraint), clear (confusion); to deconstruct.”

1 according to an extract from Shuowen Jiezi, a 2nd-century Chinese dictionary from the Han Dynasty: “理,治玉也。” (where 治玉 means jade carving.)

2 according to an extract from Xunzi, an ancient Chinese collection of philosophical: “形體、色理以目異。” (English translation: The physical forms, colors and textures of things appear differently to different people.)

3 This is a simplified version of the story.

4 according to an extract from Shuowen Jiezi: “解:判也。从刀判牛角。” (where 判 means to cut, 刀 means knife, 牛 means ox, and 角 means horn.) As you can see the character 解 is composed of the characters 角, 刀 and 牛.

The more commonly used expression in Japanese is わかる (or 分かる, both read Wa-ka-ru) , which is an alternative form for 解る where being the same loan word from Chinese and a suffix for forming verbs. On the other hand, a commonly used word in Chinese for understanding, especially in everyday language, is 明白 (which is used literarily in Japanese too). And the characters literally mean bright or illuminating (, made up of , the pictogram of sun, and , the picogram of moon) and white or clear (, the pictogram of acorn, symbolising the colour of its fresh which is white), expressing the idea akin to conveying that one is feeling enlightened.

明白四達,能無為乎?” –老子, 《道德经》

“Understanding and being open to all things, Are you able to do nothing?” - Tao Te Ching, Lao-Tzu

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