LANGUAGE OLIO 5: Words 1 – prosopagnosia phonagnosia

“Have We Met?  Tracing Face Blindness to Its Roots”

The New York Times Tuesday 27 December 2011 p. D5

From time to time I’ll just do a brief little riff on a word or two, for reasons of general interest, etymological curiosity, whimsical mood, whatever:  today’s stars are prosopagnosia  and phonagnosia.

They appear in the article cited above, and are terms for an apparently linked neurological deficit which renders an individual incapable of recognizing by sight the face and by hearing the sound of even a well-known and familiar person (e.g., a girlfriend or a son!).  I can only hope that medical research continues to “shed light on this strange malady.”

But here I just want to talk about the two coinages, taken from that endlessly productive source of modern vocabulary for things modern, ancient Greek.

Both terms are transparent, each a combination of smaller elements.  Thus, the first element of prosopagnosia is prosop- from Greek πρόσωπον ‘face, countenance’, and of phonagnosia is phon- from Greek φωνή ‘sound, voice’.  Makes sense!

The final element, –agnosia, in these words requires further decomposing.  It is itself a complex of lesser inputs.  The word ἀγνωσία agnosia as such (unlike prosopagnosia and phonagnosia) exists in unbound form in ancient Greek and is solidly entrenched in the lexicon – it is thus not a modern neologism.  For example, it shows up in both classical Greek (Euripides Medea 1204: πατὴρ δ᾽ ὁ τλήμων συμφορᾶς ἀγνωσίᾳ ‘a father wretched because of ignorance of disaster’) and in late Greek (1 Corinthians 15.34: ἀγνωσίαν γὰρ θεοῦ τινες ἔχουσιν ‘some have ignorance of God’).

Here I shall discuss it in its modular units of ἀ – γνω – σί – α.

The initial alpha (ἀ-) is a so-called alpha-privative, or an alpha that indicates negation of what follows: ἀ-X = ‘not X/non-X’.  Semantically it is thus the equivalent of English un- (as in ‘un-true’ = ‘not true’) and Latin non (hijacked without change into English, as in ‘non-binding’ = ‘not binding’).  As it turns out, this alpha-privative (ἀ-) is related not only semantically but also morphologically – to a Proto-Indo-European element represented by the hypothetical syllabic nasal *ṇ- [the subscripted dot should be a small circle, but the symbol does not exist in my font].  The negating prefixes { α- [Greek] / non- ne- [Latin] / un- [Germanic] } thus constitute a diachronic cognate set.  Admittedly this deep connection is less than transparent, but (take a chance and my word for it [that’s a zeugma]!) however opaque it may appear this cognate relationship is demonstrable on the basis of well-established principles of the diachronic phonology of the syllabic liquid *ṇ-.  (If all of this is of burning interest to you and you want to go into the technical aspects of the matter, you can do worse than getting a start by checking further here, here [see esp. §12.21 on p. 254] and here.)

The second element of ἀγνωσία (-γνω-) agnōsia is the semantic carrier, that is, the part of the word that gives it its ‘meaning’ – the other elements are, if you will, (usually syntactic) ‘tweakings’ of the word.  The root sense of γνω is ‘know’ (indeed, cognate with Greek γν and Latin cognosco are [by a diachronic phonology known as Grimm’s Law – see here, here and here] English know, German kennen, Swedish känna – all words having somehow to do with ‘knowing’).  The basic signification of our word is, therefore, ‘not-know(ing)’, and if we now take into account the semantic prefixes prosop- and phon- we get the sense of ‘not know(ing) faces’ for prosopagnosia and ‘not know(ing) voices’ for phonagnosia.  Right on target, right?

What about the two final elements -σί- and –α. The latter is simply a morphological ‘functor’ that tells us the word is nominative feminine singular – this is very important but not something to worry about for purposes of this little riff – well, maybe not so little, after all! If you really want to know about that point, better start studying Latin or/and Ancient Greek.  And the element -σί- is a not terribly obvious development out of suffixing that indicates that the word is an abstract noun.  Neither of these last two units affect the meaning of the words but are of course of essential importance in marking how it is used grammatically in a given context.

There you have those two words vouchsafed us by the Times article – and wasn’t that a hoot!

Thursday 29 December 2011



Language OLIO
1: Introduction       2: than      3: our are     4: opus maximus

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3 Responses to LANGUAGE OLIO 5: Words 1 – prosopagnosia phonagnosia

  1. heather says:

    Another fun article/post!

  2. Pingback: LANGUAGE OLIO 6: Words 2 – mobocracy ineptocracy | laohutiger

  3. Pingback: LANGUAGE OLIO 7: words 3 — lalochezia laliophilia | laohutiger

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