I have been enjoying perusing the growing number of entries to this site.  Here's one that a Grade One student, who is increasingly reading beyond her oral vocabulary, posed to me the other day: 

She had come across the word elder when we were reading together, and asked me about its meaning.  I said that my sense was that in the case we were reading it denoted the sibling or relative of greater age, but had other connotations as well.  (My Oxford bore this out later). The similarity in spelling and meaning to the word older struck us both, and she of course asked about the base of elder.  Hmm...  Well, I said, there is the word elderly so that would appear to bear out the possible words sums eld + er and eld + er  ly.  But what does the base mean?  I explained something about the possibilty in English of bound bases, and then we kept reading.  In my head, though, I was thinking, these words sound northern European, and wondering, Are there any bound bases that are not from Latin or Greek?  Anyone else?

But this one stuck with me.  I happened to be chatting on the phone with Pete Bowers, and we were mulling over a couple of the questions related to this pair.  He wondered if it had some similarity to the verbs like ride and rode that have different forms.  These, we'd recently been taught, are called ablaut or "strong" verbs.  But elder and older are not verbs.  Hmmm... a' searching I have gone, and as usual have stumbled upon a variety of new concepts and questions!

My Oxford traces both words to Old English, from eldra, but wait--there is also an entry for the "archaic" word eld!  The entry indicates a comparative connotation.  Ah ha!  My student will be very comfortable with the notion of a "fossil" in the language, after Melvyn's wonderful video correspondence with the class around the word laughter.

My etymological resources were at home.  The Online Etymology entry for is intriguing, introducing two forms, eld and ald

elder (1)"more old," O.E. (Mercian) eldra, comparative of eald, ald (see old; only English survival of umlaut in comparison. Superseded by older since 16c. Elder statesman (1921) originally was a translation of Japanese genro (pl.). As a noun, elder (c.1200, from O.E. eldra "older person, parent") was used in biblical translation for Gk. presbyter. The O.E. for "grandfather" was ealdfæder.

An umlaut???  I thought an umlaut referred to the little dots above the vowels in German heavy metal band names!  Indeed, all the entries I can find refer to the changing of sound.  But, noting the similarity to the word ablaut (the two share a Latin base, laut, meaning "sound") I have to wonder if the word has an additional linguistic meaning.  Anyone?

The entry for old also had some fascinating tidbits, pointing to the root again: 

old O.E. ald (Anglian), eald (W.Saxon), from W.Gmc. *althas "grown up, adult" (cf. O.Fris. ald, Goth. alþeis, Du. oud, Ger. alt), originally a pp. stem of a verb meaning "grow, nourish" (cf. Goth. alan "to grow up," O.N. ala "to nourish"), from PIE base *al- "to grow, nourish" (cf. Gk. aldaino "make grow, strengthen," althein, althainein "to get well;" L. alere "to feed, nourish, bring up, increase," altus "high," lit. “grown tall,” almus "nurturing, nourishing," alumnus "fosterling, step-child;" O.Ir. alim "I nourish").

Loved this bit:

The original O.E. vowel is preserved in Scots auld, also in <alderman>. The original comparative and superlative (elder, eldest) are retained in particular uses.

It sounds as though the Anglians had a slightly different spelling than their Saxon neighbours, and the Scots added a u.  It is not clear from this entry when the spelling old appeared.

So, I conclude that we have two bases, almost identical in form and pronunciation, having slightly different root forms and with slightly different meanings, one having a "comparative" connotation truer to its root.

I welcome any thoughts from elders or from juniors--wisers all.



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