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i.e. λήθη: a noun meaning oblivion or concealment, and Λήθη: a proper noun referring to a river in Greek myth.

My question is this: is this noun a reference to the mythological river, or was the name of the river borrowed from the pre-existing noun?

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    λήθη comes from an IE root leh₂- 'hide' and has English cognates such as latent and lethargy. Also consider Gk ἀλήθεια 'truth'. So seems likely to me that the river was just named 'oblivion' – Mark Beadles Feb 2 at 17:12
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    @MarkBeadles Just to be precise, lethargy is a borrowing, not a cognate, and latent is a borrowing of a cognate. – TKR Feb 2 at 21:30
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Unfortunately we have no hard evidence one way or another, because Homer uses both, and that's the oldest Greek we have. (Mycenaean inscriptions sometimes help us go farther back, but they're no help here.)

However, we can make a very good guess. There's a well-attested Ancient Greek verb lanthánō, "to escape notice"; the extra n comes from a present-tense marker inherited from Proto-Indo-European (it comes from *lh₂-n-dʰ-, from *l-h₂- "to be hidden"). In non-present tenses, you see the stem lēth- (*).

Since this verb clearly comes from a PIE verb (it has things like the nasal infix that weren't productive in Greek), and there isn't evidence of the river Lethe in other Indo-European mythologies, it's most likely that the verb lanthánō came first, the noun lěthē came from the verb, and the name Lěthē came from the noun.

EDIT: The caron on ě indicates a rising tone, which is written with an acute accent in the original Greek. (e ē é ě ê = ε η έ ή ῆ)


(*) This is called the "nasal infix", and it's one of the ways Proto-Indo-European indicated the present tense: sticking an n in the middle of the word. It died out in every Indo-European language I know of, but you can see fossils of it: for example, English victim and invincible both come from the Latin word for "conquer", but invincible came from the present (and thus had an n) while victim came from the past (and had no n).

There's one and only one instance of n in a native English word, rather than a borrowing. That one instance is present-tense stand next to past-tense stood.

  • Sorry for the mistaken edit, I looked at your caron and saw a breve. Btw what is the source of that transcription system? – TKR Feb 2 at 22:22
  • @TKR No problem. It's what my Intro Greek professor used, and I'm realizing it's not all that standardized—it's just designed to use the things on an international QWERTY keyboard. (At least it's better than the alternative one we used on mobile, that used a following "h" to mark a long vowel, so this would be Léhtheh!) – Draconis Feb 2 at 23:03

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