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I'm aware that this is possibly very difficult to answer. What are the oldest known words for the seasons (as major, multi-month divisions of the year) for which we have reasonable scholarly assurance of their pronunciation?

I know that pronunciation shifts gradually, and that terms like 'older' can be quite subjective in linguistics, but I'm curious about terms for the seasons or equinoxes that are well-attested. Additionally, for the sake of the question, two different pronunciations for the same written word count as separate.

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  • Are you asking about some specific language (e.g. English), or about human language in general? – fdb Apr 5 '15 at 23:09
  • @fdb Human language in general. I would be quite interested to hear about the oldest pronounceable English ancestor for winter, spring, summer, and autumn/fall, but I would be mildly surprised if they were the oldest confirmed pronounceable terms for the seasons. – Emmett R. Apr 5 '15 at 23:15
  • A lot depends on how you count "old", not to mention "pronounceable". Our knowledge of pronunciation gets theoretical ("It could be X or maybe Y, but possibly also Z, if A, B, or C" kind of thing) at about the 3000-year horizon, and quite fuzzy at around -5 Kyr. That's about as far back as the comparative method works. It's like Carbon-14 dating -- there's a limited half-life, and when that limit's past, it can't tell you anything, so it's only useful for dating within a certain recent range. Unfortunately, the comparative method has a much shorter half-life. – john lawler in exile Apr 5 '15 at 23:40
  • @johnlawlerinexile True. That's why I'm not looking for oldest possible, just the oldest that we're very confident of. – Emmett R. Apr 5 '15 at 23:49
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    I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it seems to be about trivia and doesn't seem relevant to linguistics. – curiousdannii Apr 6 '15 at 3:28
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Pronounciation is 100% known only for words whose sound was recorded. So all words for seasons about whose pronounciation we can be confident were used not earlier than mid-19th century when phonograph was introduced.

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  • Then presumably, the oldest surviving phonographic documentary about the seasons would be the canonical example, or perhaps a poem. I'm still curious about which language exactly that might be. Possibly French? The originators of the phonoautograph? – Emmett R. Apr 6 '15 at 0:43
  • @Emmett R. phonograph was invented by Thomas Edisson, an American, so the oldest recorded words for seasons should be in American variety of English. – Anixx Apr 6 '15 at 0:47
  • Common misconception. It was Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville, twenty years before Edison. However, his surviving recordings are Au clair de la lune and the opening of Aminta, neither of which reference the seasons. The prize must default to English, for lack of better evidence. – Emmett R. Apr 6 '15 at 0:56
  • You can quibble about what is meant by "confirmed pronunciation", but the pronunciation of ancient classical languages like Greek, Latin or Sanskrit is actually known to a high degree of certainty and has been studied thoroughly by competant scholars. – fdb Apr 6 '15 at 9:15
  • @Emmett R. It was the claim from Wikipedia that it was Edisson. I just took it from there. – Anixx Apr 6 '15 at 12:59
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The question is not just hard to answer, it is impossible, since it's based on two related, undefinable standards: "the pronunciation" and "reasonable scholarly assurance". Let's take "the pronunciation" of English winter. It is pronounced [wɪ̃ɾ̃ɹ̩], at least in my dialect. However, I do know that it is also pronounced as [wɪntɹ̩], [wɪntɜ], and [wɪnɜ] depending on dialect and individual. There isn't a unique pronunciation, in fact, I vacillate between [wɪ̃ɾ̃ɹ̩] and [wɪntɹ̩]. "Pronunciation" is a vague abstraction which covers classes of acoustic events, and even one individual uttering a word a dozen times will produce a dozen different outputs. The differences may be grammatically insignificant and very hard to perceive, but they exist. The question presupposes that a word has a unique pronunciation for all speakers, which is not the case. So the question need to be sharpened to specify what you mean by "pronunciation", in particular, the level of detail that you require. In typical linguistic usage, "pronunciation" admits of a lot of imprecision, yet you see people here rejecting candidate words because of the scent of imprecision.

More severely problematic is the standard "reasonable scholarly assurance". What does that even mean? Is there "reasonable scholarly assurance" that winter is pronounced ˈwɪnˌtʰɹ̩ or that the Classical Arabic word is [ʔaʃʃita:ʔ]? What is "reasonable scholarly assurance" opposed to? -- no scholarly reason at all? What about "very likely, but not absolutely guaranteed". If you don't accept my representation of the pronunciation of the recorded sample of "winter", how do you show that mine is incorrect and that something else is correct? Suppose you uncover a wax recording of English "winter" made 150 years ago, what would be "scholarly assurance" that the resulting representation is "the pronunciation"? There is a difference between "absolute infallible certainty" and "reasonable scholarly assurance", yet you see people being confused between the two.

I contend that proto-Indo-European and proto-Germanic reconstructions are "reasonable scholarly assurances", though in instances somewhat less certain than assumed Classical Arabic pronunciations. The (Vedic) Sanskrit word ɦimjáh (himyáḥ) "winter" is probably the oldest attested word for a season passing a high standard of certainty. There is not a shred of evidence to reject the well-established word and phonetic interpretation, so it passes the sniff test for "reasonable scholarly assurance" (though you may need to know more about the tradition of preserving Sanskrit to be assured, in case you are not familiar with Sanskrit).

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  • Why Sanskrit? Egyptian and Sumerian are known from much older texts. – fdb Apr 6 '15 at 17:12
  • Because of the greater certainty of the phonetic value. Otherwise, I would go for PIE reconstructions. You can get older forms, at the expense of certainty as to the acoustic event. – user6726 Apr 6 '15 at 17:23
  • You wrote verbatim: "The (Vedic) Sanskrit word ɦimjáh (himyáḥ) "winter" is probably the oldest attested word for a season". That is very obviously wrong. – fdb Apr 6 '15 at 17:25

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