is a language blessed, or cursed, with an overflowing wordhoard.
30% or so of our vocabulary comes to use from Old English (with
some reinforcement from Old Norse). To this Germanic base, the Norman
Conquest added tens of thousands of Norman French words very roughly
60% of the whole vocabulary. There was a constant trickle of new
borrowings from Scandinavian languages, Low German, and Dutch down
the centuries. The Renaissance encouraged borrowing of learned terms
from Latin and Greek. These last make up a good part of the last
ten or so percent of our usable words. To tangle things even more,
English explorations and conquests brought in words from India,
the Americas, and Australia.
we wish to speak of the ruler, we have a choice of "regal"
(Latin), "royal" (French<Latin), "imperial"
(Latin), or "kingly" (Old English). Owing partly to the
efforts of pro-Saxon 19th-century English writers, we
now have resort to the English core vocabulary ("native"
or Anglo-Saxon) when we write in elevated style. Tolkienís works,
for example, show a much lower presence of French/Latin words than
would be met with elsewhere. Still, English remains an interesting
mixed tongue. Thus it is not suprising that we should have two words
for such a fundamental notion as freedom or liberty.
begin on the ground of etymology: "Liberty" derives from
Latin libertas, from liber, "free."
curious aspect of this word is that Romans used liberi (plural)
to mean "children." The French linguist Émile Benveniste
explains this on the basis of a Roman marriage formula, which gave
the procreation of more free persons as the purpose of marriage
("to obtain free [beings]"). Such children would
be free as members of a class or community of free persons (as opposed
are the wider connections of liber? It seems the word arises
from common Indo-European *leudhos, from which came Greek
eleutheros, "free," as in Eleutherian. There is
an allied verb in Germanic: Gothic luidan and Old English
leodan, meaning "to grow." German Leute,
"people," stems from this verb, as did Old English
leod, which lives on in poetry as "leed." Slavic ljudu
and Lithuanian liáudis both mean "people"
and reflect *leudhos. Hence, the original or ur-meaning
had to do with growth, specifically the growth of a kin group, within
which one was free.
got "liberty" as Norman-French liberté <Latin
libertas, an abstract noun deriving from liber, which
also gives us "liberal," "liberate," and other
words. Down through all those medieval charters we can follow the
course of libertates freedoms, privileges, or reserved
rights which nobles, landed gentry, and burghers sometimes cowed
kings into acknowledging. It remained for the liberal thinkers of
the 17th and 18th centuries to theorize a
generalized notion of liberty.
to our Germanic (Old English) words, "free" and "freedom,"
we find their source in Indo-European *priyos, meaning "dear"
or "oneís own." Cognate (kin) words include Sanskrit priyas
and Persian (Avestan) fryo, both meaning "dear,"
Sanskrit prináti, "pleases," and Slavic
prijatel, "friend." By the time we reach the Celtic
and Germanic tongues, we find ourselves on home-ground with Welsh
rhyyd, "free," and in Germanic Gothic frijon,
"to love," freis, "free," and freihals,
"freedom." Old English freo and feols answer
to the last two Gothic terms.
is interesting in that it literally means "free-neck"
(hals, "neck," lives on in German Hals and
Scots hawse), that is, the status of one who does not bend
the neck or wear the collar of servitude, or as Winfred Lehmann
puts it, "one who is possessor of his own neck as opposed
to a slave who is the property of his master." Very literal-minded,
these ancestors of ours! Given the root meanings of *priyos,
it is not shocking to find that Gothic frijonds, Old English
freond, English friend, and German Freund,
and so on, are also built on that stem. There is also, apparently,
a connection with Old English frith and German Frieden,
"peace." With differing suffixes are built German Freiheit
(= "free-hood") and English "freedom."
(The Old English suffix -dom comes from Indo-European *dhê-,
"set, settle, establish," which yields Greek thesis
and thema ["theme"] and probably Sanskrit dharma,
not to mention English "deem" and "doom.")
is a striking field of meanings: "dear," "oneís own,"
"friends," "peace," "freedom," and
so forth. As with *leudhos, "freedom" seems wholly
bound up with life in small communities. Can republican theory and
radical decentralization be far behind? Benveniste, who is very
helpful on the etymologies, believed that they showed that freedom
is granted by the community. As a follower of Marcel Mauss,
and therefore of Durkheim, he could not have done otherwise. It
makes more sense to say that "freedom" is only meaningful
in society: "Freedom is a sociological concept. It is
meaningless to apply it to conditions outside society: as can be
well seen from the confusions prevailing everywhere in the celebrated
free-will controversy" (Ludwig von Mises, Socialism
[Jonathan Cape, 1936], p. 191).
third word root of some interest here is Indo-European *s(w)e-,
"self." Derivatives include Greek ethos, ethic-
(<*swedh-), Latin sodalitas, "religious society"
(<*swed-), and English "sib" and "self"
(all with various suffixes added to *s(w)e-. One could add
Greek idios, "oneís own," "private,"
(<*s(w)id-, with different vocalism) whence "idiot,"
the man who thinks of nothing but his own interest). *S(w)e-
is the basis of most reflexive and many third-person possessive
pronouns in the Indo-European languages, including Latin, se,
suus, sua, suum, Spanish su, and Slavic
svoj-. The latter is interesting, as it seems to provide
the first syllable of the pan-Slavic word for freedom: svobodá.
Only the lack of a good Slavic etymological dictionary keeps me
from dogging its footsteps further.
is just as well to stop the word-kinship quest here. Otherwise,
I would be tempted to make a purely etymological argument for freedom-as-self-ownership
("possessor of his own neck") and the philosophers would
become very cross indeed. As for the semantic range of "liberty"
and "freedom," as they have come down to us, it seems
that our native word is looser than the French/Latin one. We speak
of "free play" (in mechanics), "free will,"
"free stuff," "free fall," and iceboxes that
are "frost-free" (where "free" = "unburdened
with"). It is easy to see how confusion might creep in. Careless
thinkers might take freedom to mean getting goodies from the state.
so, "freedom" seems a bit more world-bound or concrete
than "liberty." The latter conjures up the abstract public
liberty in relation to the state. I expect that in practice we shall
go on using the two words rather interchangeably, even if they are
not exact synonyms in their full semantic range. It is said that
Chinese has no word, as such, for freedom. That would be interesting,
if true, but I am more than ready to be set right on this point,
if not. Ancient Sumerian had ama-gi, the cuneiform script
for which you will find all over the endpapers of any book published
by Liberty Fund.
decentralized, republican or otherwise, liberty and freedom are
very old notions with a pedigree at least as impressive as those
of any opposing concepts. It would be premature, then, to agree
with the song-wright who claimed that "freedomís just another
word for nothing left to lose." Freedom might well be the very
"thing" it is most important not to lose.
This essay grew out of a discussion around the imaginary water cooler
and got completely out of hand. Works consulted include Émile
Language and Society (University of Miami Press, 1973),
pp. 262-272, Winfred P. Lehmann, A
Gothic Etymological Dictionary (E. J. Brill, 1986), pp.
127-129 and 234-235, and Calvert Watkins, ed., The
American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (Houghton
Mifflin, 1985), pp. 37 (*leudh-2) and 53 (*prî-).
Joseph R. Stromberg [send him
mail] is the JoAnn B. Rothbard Historian in Residence at the
Ludwig von Mises Institute and
a columnist for Antiwar.com.
© 2001 LewRockwell.com