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Document number: 5899
Date: 05 Dec 1839
Recipient: TALBOT William Henry Fox
Author: THIRLWALL Newell Connop
Collection: British Library, London, Manuscripts - Fox Talbot Collection
Last updated: 9th February 2011

Kirby Underdale
Decr 5. 39

My dear Sir

Your last letter raises some questions of considerable importance, as connected with what may be called the beginning and end of mythology. One of the principal uses of mythology is undoubtedly to enable us to discriminate between truth & fiction in historical narratives: and I consider etymology as the most important – often the only – guide in mythological researches. On this very account it is the more necessary to be careful to use its assistance discreetly – that is to proceed on sound principles, and according to safe analogies, and not to carry it too far. I must own that I think your derivations of discordia & your explanation of the Κηρες utterly inadmissable on etymological grounds. As to the first the omission of the aspirate is, I still think, an objection, though not the gravest. Your etymon of κορδαξ, even if it were certain, would not meet even that objection. If κορδαξ really comes from χορδη, the change of the χ must I should think be referred to the final ξ. But in Latin chorda & all its known derivatives I believe uniformly retain the aspirates. This I take to be sufficient to exclude your conjecture, even if it were reconcilable with the termination in ors and if the true etymology were not determined by that of vecors. I do not however mean to deny that there are examples of words written in Latin with a c which has taken the place of χ . So calx very probably comes from χαλιξ – or is another form of the same word. Mueller <1> [sic] refers the Carinantes of Festus <2> for which the Greek gloss Χαριεντιζεσθαι is to the Χαρινος - Gracion. of the comic drama. But your example of Cohors seems to me unfortunately selected, since there the aspirate is retained. Your derivation, “that Χ & Κ both turn into H in other languages”, is too general to be safely applied. It may happen that in some cases we have a form in which the aspirate originally derived from Χ has been lost, others in which there remains only a part of the one originally substituted, according to the genius of the language, for Κ. It must be observed that it is the general tendency of languages abounding in aspirates & gutterals to drop or soften them in course of time. So with the Anglosaxon initial h, as in hlaford hlaaf <3> & the old German ch which was used where they now write k and g & pronounce without any aspirate. So in all old Florentine writings the h is found where it is now dropped, though the people pronounce c & g before a o u as being hard gutterals – harder I think than the Spanish j or x – e.g. chorte – gharbo – Grimm observes in his German Grammar <4> I. p. 177 – note: Eine weit ältere lautverschiebung erweist sich aus wörtern, wo dem lat. c. ein organisches h (in allen deutschen sprachen) antwortet vgl. cannabis, calamus, canis, centum, caput, & mit hanuf halam, hunt, hundert, houbit (in der mitte läge hier das altfränk. ch.) und so scheint auf der zweyten stufe den lat. g das deutsche organ. k zu begegnen, vgl. ego augere mit dem goth. ik, aukan. – I do not know to what language ir for hand belongs. The cases in which the aspirate has been entirely lost present the least difficulty of all. My general conclusion is that as Χ and Κ were originally distinct, so it is only in appearance, and never without rule & cause, though often unknown, that they are ever confounded together. It would be I think an incredible anomaly that Χειρ should have lapsed into κηρ when all the branches of their numerous families so constantly preserve their peculiar characters both of consonants & vowels. – I do not know what to make of ΕΧσεκιας the LXX <5> write Εζεκιας for Hezekiah. But ΕΧσεκιας certainly represents the Hebrew better. Yet a Jewish artist can hardly be imagined: though a Phœnician slave might not be out of the question. If however you substitute κ for Χ you do not get a common Greek name. I may observe before I drop this subject, that I am able to attest that the modern Jews pronounce their caph in some cases as a very hard guttural e.g. Chamocha, as thyself.

As to Arion, <6> there can be no question that his voyage, as related by Herodotus, <7> is fabulous: the only question is as to the origin of the fable. The explanation which you adopt – from Taras on the Dolphin – is that which Mueller proposed in his Dorians, II. p. 369. note 3 of the German.<8> But I observe that in the last edn of the English translation, which gives his latest corrections, this note is silently omitted: from which omission I suspect that Welcker’s <9> arguments have induced him to drop his hypothesis. Welcker observes that Taras, according to the original Tarantium legend, was a native hero, & that the dolphin on which he i[s]<10> seated on the coins is merely the common symbol of a M<11> city, and could not have given rise to the fable. Nor, [illegible x 2]<12> could the monument on Tænarus <13> by itself, at least so as to have spread it so widely. He therefore believes that the fable arose out of the hymn preserved by Ælian, <14> which he thinks genuine. On this point however he seems to have few followers. But at any rate we are only embarrassed by the difficulty of choosing between various explanations. Now I do not see why this story should cast the slightest shade of suspicion on any part of the history of Periander <15> which would otherwise have been credible. Does it so much as throw any on the existence & labours of the poet himself? If such a principle were admitted, since the suspicion must spread not only from the hero of a fabulous adventure to his contemporaries, but from generation to generation, it would be easy to shew that there is no fact recorded in history on which we can safely rely – all history would be swallowed up in Mythology, and historic doubts about Napoleon Buonaparte <16> would no longer be a jeu d’esprit, <17> but matter of very serious & sad perplexity

I am My dear Sir Very truly yours
C Thirlwall

P.S. Are you not rather too hard upon Tydeus <18> when you describe him as a habitual cannibal?

H. F. Talbot Esqe
Lacock Abbey


1. Karl Otfried Müller (1797–1840), classical scholar and archaeologist. ‘He prepared the way for scientific investigation of myths’ and ‘avoided the extreme views of Creuzer and Lobeck’. See Doc. No: 05904.

2. Sextus Pompeius Festus ( fl. 2ndcentury AD), grammarian and etymologist. His De verborum significatu was edited by Müller.

3. hlaford = lord; hlaaf = loaf

4. Jakob Ludwig Karl Grimm (1785–1863), the father of philology. Deutsche Grammatik (Göttingen: Dieterichsche Buchhandlung, 1819–1837). Grimm’s Law identified systematic and successive sound changes in Proto-Germanic languages as they developed from a Proto-Indo-European predecessor. Thirlwall uses Grimm’s sound change principles to support his arguments on the etymology of certain Greek words. WHFT was not familiar with the latest linguistic scholarship, for example with the work of Rask and later the elder Grimm. The systematic sound changes identified by Grimm allowed one to see or look for correspondences between Germanic and other Indo-European words. Hence, the understanding of roots (etymons) becomes more rational and less speculative. For example, the argument that foot/fuss and pedes have a cognate predecessor carries more weight if one can find multiple examples of the p to f relationship spread across many languages. It should be noted that this is a sound change (phonetic) above all even if the examples show it in writing (orthographically).

5. The seventy scholars believed to have translated the Septuagint (the Greek Old Testament).

6. Arion of Corinth, semi-legendary Greek poet and musician (fl. C.625 BC), was supposed to have been saved by a dolphin, while returning fron Taras (modern Taranto, Sicily) to Greece. A man on a dolphin appears on the coinage of Taras and is often identified as Taras, the eponymous founder of the city.

7. Greek historian (c.484–425BC).

8. Karl Otfried Müller (1797–1840), The history and antiquities of the Doric race (London: Printed for J. Murray, S. Collingwood, 1830).

9. Friedrich Gottlieb Welcker (1784–1868); pioneer archaeologist who insisted that study of Greek religion and art should be coordinated with that of philology.

10. Seal damage.

11. Seal damage. Possibly M for Magna Graecia, Greek cities in the coastal areas of Southern Italy, on the Tarantine Gulf.

12. Seal damage.

13. The monument on Taenarus (Cape Matapan, Greece)celebrates the story of the dolphin which rescued Arion of Corinth carried him to Taenarus. A bronze statue of a man on a dolphin was later erected there.p>

14. Claudius Ælianus ( fl. 2nd/3rd century AD); his writings contain ‘numerous excerpts from older writers’.

15. Tyrant of Corinth, friend of Arion (see above).

16. Napoleon Bonaparte (1769–1821), emperor.

17. witticism

18. Legendary Greek hero who fought at Thebes and ate the brains of a dead enemy.

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