Herbst – harvest

Harvest is a superb word to talk about language roots. Quite obviously, the German and English words of the headline share the same word root, one that is backed by shared cultural and climatic geography: Herbst is harvest time. Autumn, on the other hand, is a relative newcomer to the English language, one of the hundreds and thousands of words borrowed (and never given back, to quote a bonmot well known amongst English language historians) from Latin and/or French. What fascinates me about plucking out linguistic roots is that it’s like opening a window into the history of a speech community, and ultimately of all of mankind. Language roots are ultimately shared by all humanity, even if language should have developed independently in different places. Over time, we kept on mixing – genetically as well as culturally. So, especially for those who believe in cultural purity, or the existence of ‘pure’ nations and races – let me propose this challenging piece of language history: German Herbst (‘autumn’) and English harvest apparently have Semitic roots!

Here’s the evidence (by historical linguistic comparison, I follow Vennemann in this): the Semitic root Ḫ-R-P with the meaning ‘to take fruit off the trees, to pluck, to harvest’ is found in Arabic (ḫarafa ‘to pluck fruit from trees’, ḫarīfun ‘autumn, harvest, autumnal rain’), in Hebrew (ḥoræp ‘autumn, winter’), and in Akkadian (ḫarpū ‘autumn’). The Germanic words add a common suffix –st to form the (abstract) nouns. (for more explanations and other examples see Vennemann, Theo 2006. “Grimm’s Law and Loanwords”. Transactions of the Philological Society Volume 104:2, 129–166, at 152f.)

My conclusion? It’s a small world, and always has been. People have always mixed, even if sometimes it happened under unequal power relationships. Trade and cultural exchange dominated the cultures around the Mediterranean Sea as well as the Baltic and North Sea regions, especially with Phoenician traders. Vennemann’s publications of the last two decades have many more examples.

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