Indo-European Phrase of the Week: “Undying Fame”

Occasionally comparative linguists are able not only to reconstruct individual words in Indo-European, but also whole phrases … Probably the most famous such phrase is *klewos ndghwhitom, “imperishable fame.” The most ancient texts in Indo-European languages, such as the Vedic hymns of ancient India, the Homeric epics, the Germanic sagas, and Old Irish praise-poetry, all demonstrate that the perpetuation of the fame of a warrior or king was of critical importance to early Indo-European society. The preservation of their fame was in the hands of poets, highly skilled and highly paid professionals, who acted both as the repositors and the transmitters of the society’s oral culture.

The phrase *klewos ndghwhitom, (where *klewos is a noun built on the root kleu-, “to hear,” and can be thought of literally as “what is heard about someone, reputation”) was reconstructed on the basis of the exact equation of Greek kleos aphthiton and Sanskrit sravah aksitam. …

Not surprisingly, “fame” is a recurring element in Indo-European personal names. The name of the Greek poet Sophocles meant “famed for wisdom”; the German name Ludwig means “famed in battle”; and the Czech name Bohuslav means “having the fame (glory) of God.”

The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-Europeans Roots, 3rd ed., p. 44

Now, let’s look at this same concept running strongly throughout Beowulf, an epic that is written in Anglo-Saxon, but set in Denmark before some of the Danes left there for England:

The Almighty granted him renown. Beowulf, son of Scyld, became famous in Denmark, and his fame spread everywhere. Thus, while still under his father’s protection, a young prince should by his goodness and generous gifts so manage affairs that later on his companions may give him support and his people their loyalty in time of war. For among all peoples it is only through those actions which merit praise that a man may prosper. (page 27)

Beowulf: “They tell me that in his vainglory the monster is contemptuous of weapons. Therefore, as I wish to keep the good opinion of my lord Hygelac, I propose to dispense with any kind of sword or shield during the combat. Foe against foe, I shall fight the fiend to the death with my bare hands. Whichever of us is killed must resign himself to the verdict of God. … If I am killed in combat, send to Hygelac the coat of mail which I am wearing. For it is the best corselet in the world, the work of Weland Smith, and an heirloom that once belonged to my grandfather Hrethel. Fate must decide.” (page 37)

By the close of that bloody fight the wish of all the Danes was fulfilled. It was thus that the resolute, cool-headed man who had come from a distant land purged Hrothgar’s hall and defended it from attack. The Geat prince rejoiced in his night’s work. For he had made good his boast to the Danes and put right their trouble … When the hero set up the talon, arm, and shoulder — Grendel’s entire grasp — under the great gables of Heorot, the evidence spoke for itself. (page 46)

Hrothgar to Beowulf: “By your exploits you have established your fame for ever. May God reward you with good fortune, and He has done up to now.” (page 49)

“Venerable king, do not grieve. It is better for a man to avenge his friend than to mourn him long. We must all expect an end to life in this world; let him who can win fame before death, because that is a dead man’s best memorial.” (page 60)

Beowulf, trans. David Wright, Penguin Classics

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