The Myth of Return in Early Greek Epic

Formal Evidence for the Etymology of Greek nóos

Various attempts have been made to etymologize Greek nóos, but none of these has carried wide conviction. The word permits a large number of formal reconstructions, and this helps to explain both the number of attempted etymologies and the uncertainty of all of them.

The crucial problem is the hiatus, which may be accounted for by the loss of original –w-, –j-, or –s-, or may even be regarded as original itself. Complicating this situation is the ambiguity of the initial n, which may be either original or descended from an original sn– (as in nípha, “snow,” from *snigwh-m̥). Multiplying the two uncertainties by each other produces a total of eight possible reconstructions. [1]

This field may be reduced sharply, however. The decipherment of the Linear-B tablets has produced a new and important piece of evidence regarding the hiatus. The evidence does not show which of the four possibilities is correct, but it does remove from consideration the one that has most often been assumed by etymologists. {1|2}

These considerations reduce the possibilities to three: *no-os, *noj-os, and *nos-os. The first of these is in fact very unlikely, for nóos, as Frisk points out, is doubtless an old, inherited verbal noun (“zweifellos ein altererbtes Verbalnomen”), and as such should be connected with a verbal root—namely, with a root having the shape CeC- (where C = consonant).

McKenzie’s etymology is possible, but it has serious problems. Naya-ḥ does not appear until the post-Vedic period, and may well be an independent formation in Sanskrit. The appropriate meanings, moreover, seem clearly derivative, and in any case are not very close to the meaning of Greek nóos. One might still suppose an independent semantic development in Greek, except for the most serious difficulty of all: one would be speculating about a verbal root which is otherwise unattested in Greek. As far as we know, there was no Greek root nej-. {3|4}

The form that remains is *nosos. This, too, conforms to the Mycenean evidence, since the loss of intervocalic s is also attributable to Common Greek. In Mycenean this s probably survived as h in pronunciation, but the feature is usually not represented in the writing system (cf. the s-stem dative we-te-i, later Greek (w)étei, from *wetesi). Furthermore, there is a well-attested verbal root nes– in Greek: namely the root of néomai, “return home,” in which etymological s is guaranteed by the nominal form nóstos.


[ back ] 1. For a discussion of the formal possibilities, see E. Schwyzer, Festschrift für P. Kretschmer: Beiträge zur griechischen und lateinischen Sprachforschung (Berlin, 1926), pp. 247 ff.

[ back ] 2. The personal name no-e-u, Noeús, (PY Jn 431) is also generally connected with nóos, and again shows the lack of a –w-.

[ back ] 3. For the proposed connection with neúō, see W. Prellwitz, Etymologisches Wörterbuch der griechischen Sprache 2 (Göttingen, 1905), s.v. nóos; and K. Brugmann, Indogermanische Forschungen 19 (1906): 213–214, 30 (1912): 371 ff. For the proposed connection with néō, see E. Kieckers, Indogermanische Forschungen 23 (1908-09): 362 ff.

[ back ] 4. E. Schwyzer, Festschrift (n. 1); H. Frisk, Griechisches etymologisches Wörterbuch (Heidelberg, 1960–1971), s.v. nóos.

[ back ] 5. Cf. P. Chantraine, Grammaire homérique (Paris, 1958), 1: 177.

[ back ] 6. R. McKenzie, Classical Quarterly 17 (1923): 195–196. It should be noted that the Greek and Latin parallels cited by McKenzie represent different semantic developments, one from the other; cf. É. Benveniste, Le vocabulaire des institutions indo-européennes (Paris, 1969), 1: 151 ff.

[ back ] 7. H. Mühlestein, “Namen von Neleiden auf Pylostäfelchen,” Museum Helveticum 22 (1965): 158, n. 18. C.J. Ruijgh and P. Frei have also discussed the possible derivation of nóos from nes-; for their solutions to the semantic problem see, respectively, nn. 37 and 42 below.

[ back ] 8. Mühlestein, p. 158.