The Grammarphobia Blog

Harmonic progression

Q: What is the Indo-European root for “harmony”? Is it older than the root for “gnosis”?

A: The Indo-European root for “harmony” has been reconstructed as ar-, meaning to fit together.

This is the prehistoric origin of the Greek words harmos (joint, shoulder) and harmonia, which means a concord of sounds but also has a more general sense: concord, joining, or agreement.

The word traveled from Greek to Latin (harmonia) to French (harmonie) and finally to English in the late 14th century.

The earliest use of “harmony” in English is in its musical sense. In The Hous of Fame (circa 1384), Chaucer wrote of “Songes ful of Armonye.”

The word was first used in English in its more general sense (agreement, concord, etc.) in the 1500s.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines this sense as “combination or adaptation of parts, elements, or related things, so as to form a consistent and orderly whole; agreement, accord, congruity.”

The prehistoric root that gave us “harmony” (ar-) is also in the genes of such words as arm, armada, armature, armoire, army, article, alarm, disarm, gendarme, art, artisan, and words starting with the arthro- prefix.

An entirely separate Indo-European root, gno-, is responsible for the Greek gnosis (knowledge). In English, “gnosis” refers to the esoteric knowledge sought by the ancient Gnostics.

The gno- root is also responsible (through proto-Germanic) for the Old English cnawan (know) as well as the modern words know, knowledge, ken, kith, kin, cunning, and others.

Some other descendants of gno- came into English through Latin and Greek: notice, notion, cognition, recognize, ignore, noble, gnostic, diagnosis, narrate, normal, and others too numerous to mention.

These two Indo-European roots, ar- and gno-, were independent of one another, so it makes no sense to ask which came first. Remember that this is prehistory we’re talking about, before there was writing.

We can recommend, if you’re interested, The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots, edited by Calvert Watkins. It’s in paperback.

Check out our books about the English language