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2. Artistic and Literary Commitments (1880-1950)

‘Promising’? ‘Hiring’? ‘Coloring’? ‘Pawning’? Reflections on the notion of artistic ‘commitment’ in the Indo-European arena



Cet article examine, dans sa première partie, l’arrière-plan formel et sémantique, contemporain et historique, du verbe anglais commit et les différentes façons dont il est employé dans le domaine de la production artistique. Dans sa deuxième partie, il examine la notion d’engagement en français, en allemand et en italien contemporains. L’étude révèle d’importantes divergences intra- et inter-langues en ce qui concerne la représentation de cette notion, nous amenant à constater l’impossibilité de postuler, dans le domaine de l’engagement artistique du moins, un sémantisme commun hérité de l’antiquité ou de l’indo-européen.

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  • 1 The so-called Whorfian hypothesis takes as axiomatic the supposed fact that an individual’s percept (...)

1This paper falls into two parts, the first of which looks at the formal and semantic background of the English verb commit and its application to artistic production, and the second of which looks at the notion of ‘commitment’ and its expression in French, German and Italian, including, where it is useful, additional material from some ancient and mediaeval languages. The overall aim, rather than an appraisal of the commitment of any one artist, school or movement, is to attempt to see whether, from a mildly Whorfian perspective1, speakers of the languages in question, have in mind roughly the same ideas when they use words which dictionaries give as equivalents of English commitment. The panorama finishes with a brief reflection on the possible necessity and the usefulness of artistic commitment.

2Art and artist are two words notoriously difficult to define. Indeed, most art historians refuse to attempt to do so. The words will be considered here in the broadest of senses, inspired by the etymology of Lat. ars as presented by Ernout and Meillet in their Dictionnaire étymologique de la langue latine, roughly: ‘a skill acquired through study or practice, technical knowledge or talent’. The form is, via the addition of a *-t- theme, identical with that of armus ‘upper arm (and shoulder)’, cognate with Gr. αρμός ‘joint, shoulder’ the reflex of an IE base *er-/*ar-, from which also: Gr. ҆αραρειν ‘arrange’, Arm. ardar ‘correct’, and, by an extension in -ei-, Lat. rītus ‘ritual’ and OHG rīm ‘row, number’. A broad and general working definition of art such as this will allow us to include in our discussion individuals having preoccupations as apparently disparate as Vincent van Gogh, Karl Marx and Lutz Templin, all skilful technicians of icons and symbols.

3The approach here will be essentially lexically- as opposed to corpus-based, and etymological, with the risk of turning into some sort of linguistic Antiques Roadshow of no great relevance to present-day problems. The aim here is not to attempt to raise earlier uses of words to the status of ‘true meanings’ nor to test any particular analytical grid. It is more to collate a number of what appear to be linguistic facts in order to arrive at a multidimensional appreciation of the words and meanings surrounding the notion of ‘artistic commitment’.

4Abbreviations and symbols used in this paper


precedes a reconstructed form


developing from or borrowed from


hypothetically developing from or borrowed from


cognate with


developing into or borrowed as


















Late Middle English


New High German


noun phrase


Old Church Slavonic


Old English


Old French


Old Norse


Old Prussian


Old Saxon


Present-Day English


past participle






Shorter Oxford English Dictionary



5By convention, forms are printed in italics. Meanings are printed in uprights and placed between single inverted commas.

1. The formal and semantic background

  • 2 In its monotransitive usage, commit takes a restricted number of direct objects, e.g. adultery; big (...)

6The verb commit in the sense we are interested in2, enters into a transitive prepositional formation of the type V + NP + Prep. + NP, as illustrated in John blames Mary for the accident and Mary accuses John of lying; Fred took Cyril into his confidence and Cyril worked wonders with Fred’s old car. As such, it requires, explicitly or implicitly, three arguments, viz., in traditional terminology: subject, direct object and indirect object, with the option of adverbial adjuncts of time, manner, place, degree, duration, etc. Looked at from a more pragmatic perspective, the action of committal supposes an agent, a patient and a beneficiary. In languages using nominal inflexions, such as Latin or Old English, we have a nominative/ergative, an accusative and a dative.

7This underlying pattern gives us such utterances as

1 The author commits his work/himself to the cause

8expandable, by the insertion of adjuncts, to, for example

2 By the end of the 1930s, the two authors were invariably and wholly committing their novels and poetry to the furtherance of opposing ideologies

9and reducible, via ellipsis, composition, derivation and inflexion to, for example

3 a committed author; committed theatre; a left-wing commitment; a non-committal statement

10All three arguments can vary, as illustrated in

4 The body was committed to the earth by the priest

5 The authorities committed the child to the care of foster-parents

6 John was committed to a mental asylum

7 The data should be committed to memory

8 Mary’s promise committed her to visiting the hospital every week

9 Never commit yourself before asking a few questions

11Note that utterances 4, 5 and 6 preserve the primary, concrete sense of Latin mittō ‘send, put’, whereas utterances 7, 8 and 9 rely on a progressive metaphorisation of the verb.

1.1 A brief look at Latin

12This metaphorisation is not new, as can be seen from the following utterances quoted by Benoist and Goelzer in their Nouveau Dictionnaire latin-français (1912):

10 Mittere aliquem ad Stigias undas. Ovid (I BC-1 AD). ‘send sb to the waves of the Styx (= kill)’

11 Mittere alicui salutem. Ovid. ‘send sb one’s regards’

12 Mittere alicui mentem. Virgil (I BC). ‘inspire sb with a thought’

13 Mittere aliquem in negotium. Cicero (I BC). ‘interest sb in business’

14 Mittere orbem sub lege. Virgil. ‘commit the world to (a system of) laws’

15 Mittere timorem. Virgil. ‘dispel fears’

16 Iam scrutare mitto. Plautus (III-II BC) ‘I give up the search’

17 Missa istæc face. Terence (II BC). ‘Don’t give it another thought’

13The compound committō presents a wide range of meanings, presented here according to Benoist and Goelzer’s ten principal groups of meanings

14I ‘assemble, join, unite, link’

18 Committere dextram dextræ. Ovid. ‘clasp hands’

19 Committere manum Teucris. Virgil. ‘get to grips with the Trojans’

15II ‘set in combat, competition’

  • 3 Note the redundancy of com- […] cum.

20 Committere pugiles Latinos cum Græcis. Suetonius. ‘set the Latin boxers against the Greeks’3

16III ‘compare’

21 Committere vates. Juvenal. ‘draw parallels between poets’

17IV ‘commence, order, dispose, engage, deliver, inaugurate’

22 Committere pugnam. Cicero. ‘give battle’

23 Committere ludos. Cicero. ‘inaugurate the games’

18V ‘make war’

  • 4 Note the absence of an explicit direct object.

24 Priusquam committeratur. Suetonius. ‘prior to giving (battle)’4

19VI ‘commit an illicit act, fail, transgress the law’

25 Committere cædem. Ovid. ‘commit murder’

  • 5 Note the absence of an explicit direct object.

26 Nemo committeret. Cicero. ‘no-one broke (the law)5

20VII (with ut, cur, quare or the infinitive) ‘expose oneself to’

27 Non committam ut tibi insanire videar. Cicero. ‘I shall not go so far as to make you consider me mad.’

21VIII ‘risk, bring upon oneself’

28 Committere mulctam. Cicero. ‘risk a fine’

22IX (in the passive voice) ‘apply, function as a guarantee of payment’

29 Committitur cautio. Digestorum libri Latini. ‘a caution is demanded’

23X ‘commit, abandon, deliver up’

30 Committere alicui salutem suam. Curtius. ‘entrust sb with one’s life’

24This brief review of the Latin data brings out the formal and semantic agility of mittō and committō and, of particular interest here, the readiness of both the simple and the compound verb to dispense with an indirect object (beneficiary), as illustrated in utterances 15, 16, 21, 22, 23, 25 and 29, and, in the case of the compound, to dispense with both a direct object (patient) and an indirect object (beneficiary) as in utterances 24, 26 and 27. Such devices add to the semantic density of the verb, inevitably leaving more for the addressee to fill in than explicit syntax would do. Thus, it appears that the scene was already set by the time of Cicero (First century BC) and Suetonius (First century AD) for the kind of elliptical syntax and ill-apportioned semantics we find in present-day expressions such as

31 Committed writing

32 The artist doesn’t commit herself

33 A deep sense of commitment

25which can, and do on occasion, serve metaphorically, autonomously and insidiously to hoodwink the unwary, more of which later.

1.2 Back to English

  • 6 For a discussion of the term conative, see Jakobson (1963: 216).

26As opposed to words such as autonomy; freedom; immunity; impunity; independence; licence; and non-alignment, the word commitment enters into paradigmatic relations with such words as alignment; allegiance; belief; binding; dedication; devotion; duty; faith; involvement; mission; pledge; promise; servitude; responsibility; trust; and vow. In the domain of connotation, non-committed art evokes the notions of ‘adventure’; ‘art for art’s sake’; ‘fantasy’; ‘frivolity’; ‘fun’; ‘gratification’; ‘indulgence’; ‘suspension of disbelief’; ‘spontaneity’ and ‘leisure’, with, importantly, a focus on the artist appealing to the imagination of an addressee as a spatially, temporally and socially autonomous individual. As such, it might be called contemplative art. Committed art, on the other hand, suggests such notions as ‘agitation’; ‘protest’; ‘restriction’; ‘realism’; ‘sobriety’; ‘sincerity’; ‘reform’; ‘predictability’ and ‘work’, with a focus on the artist engaging a socialised, hic et nunc public by an appeal to its rationality and conscience. By virtue of its self-attributed educative and social consciousness-raising role and its aim to spur into action, it might be called conative art.6

  • 7 The standard, if approximate, translation of the original German: ‘Proletaria aller Länder vereinig (...)
  • 8 Though Marx continually used false names when renting premises in order to evade detection by the p (...)

27So it might be in theory, yet the picture is necessarily blurred by questions of financial gain, career and patronage on the part of the artist, by the characteristics of the channel (medium, accessibility, diffusion) and the state of preparedness of the addressee, who may or may not be aware of his/her own role or how the artist is seeking to affect him/her. All and any artistic production may be said to be to a certain degree committed, in that it is motivated, even though at one extreme the motivation does not go beyond the artist’s desire for self-gratification. In view of this inevitable blurring, it would seem wise to envisage the notion of commitment as a continuum–and a multi-channel one at that–rather than a matter of on/off, presence/absence. At one end of the continuum are things like public lavatory graffiti, whose function is to give expression to the artist’s emotional state, but which have no identifiable addressee private or public, and whose anonymity protects the artist from, and deprives him/her of, recognition. One or two steps along the continuum we might find productions such as anonymous letters denouncing misdemeanours real or imagined to some authority. In addition to their expressive function, such productions appear to be conative, in that they constitute an attempt to constrain the addressee. Yet once again, the artist is protected from committing him/herself as an individual, his/her voice posing as that of a just and rational public seeking to create a better world. He/she runs no personal risk in letting the disembodied production do the constraining. At the opposite end of the continuum we would find a work such as Karl Marx’ and Friedrich Engels’ The Manifesto of the Communist Party (1848), whose conative function is unambiguously the replacement of a political system by one deemed to be more beneficial to the whole of humanity. The art that goes into such a work, apart from catch phrases such as the final slogan: ‘Workers of the world unite7 is of an overwhelmingly rhetorical and intellectual variety8.

  • 9 Recall Marx’s Thesis N° XI (1845): ‘Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. T (...)

28In between these two extremes, we find a multitude of artists. Towards the graffiti end: pornographers, ghost writers, producers of soap operas, comic book illustrators, tabloid journalists and composers of repetitive and lifeless pop music. Towards the Communist Manifesto end are those who use their art not only to interpret the world but to attempt to instigate social changes9, such as Charles Dickens, Gerhart Hauptmann and Emile Zola, or seek to remind their public of past outrages, as do Pablo Picasso in Guernica (1937) and Primo Levi in Se questo è un uomo (1947). A painter like Vincent Van Gogh, who can unhesitatingly be said to have been ‘committed to his art’ and to the representation of primary sensations and everyday life, would presumably come somewhere in the middle. True commitment, whatever its beneficiary, be it a cause, a war-effort, a religion, a philosophy, a political regime, beauty, or the artistic object itself, would appear to have at least three prerequisites: 1) a single-minded intolerance of other forms of allegiance; 2) a refusal to pander to vanity, fashion or popular opinion; 2) a disregard for the artist’s own personal welfare at least as far as the artistic production and its consequences are concerned. Commitment, in its most general sense, therefore implies selectivity and, to a greater or lesser extent, (self-)sacrifice.

29The perversion of commitment is also an option: figures like Hitler and Stalin turned out to be tyrants in prophet’s clothes. Notwithstanding their claims of idealism, their commitment was to themselves: their political productions were of poor quality. Had Hitler stuck to painting and Stalin to organising hold-ups, the twentieth century would possibly have been a happier one. This comment serves to highlight a fourth prerequisite of true and effective commitment: the talent and professionalism of the artist.

  • 10 An example of Charlie and his Orchestra’s politicised swing can be heard on (...)
  • 11 The music of Charlie and his Orchestra compares very favourably with that of Pennsylvania-born Engl (...)

30Another form of false commitment comes about when the artist is recruited by a political regime or a corporation and becomes the unthinking executive of its ideology or its sales campaign. In this sad and sinister scenario, the artist and his/her work are bundled together and committed willy-nilly to the master, who controls armies of advertising or propaganda-producing slaves. Goebbels’ 1939 creation of Lutz Templin’s Nazi-sponsored jazz band Charlie and his Orchestra, to be broadcast to enemy countries, is a classic example of this10. Its appeal came more from the quality of the music11 than from the lyrics and the poor accent of the singer Karl Schwedler.

31False commitment is always circular or reflexive in this way, whereas true commitment cannot be. In between true and false, we find cases of trapped artists such as Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), undeniably committed to his music, yet terrorised, controlled and finally enslaved by the regime, which managed to project him as a committed hero of the Soviet cause.

32Any discussion of artistic commitment therefore needs to recognise that the three arguments surrounding the verb should not necessarily be understood according to their traditional grammatical functions. The apparently innocent-sounding and glorifying

34 Albert is a committed writer

33can correspond to various situations, such as

35 Albert commits himself to writing

36 Albert commits his writing to a cause

37 A political system has committed Albert and his writing to itself

38 Albert commits himself to achieving wealth and/or recognition by his writing

34True commitment, the type we are interested in, implies, as we have seen, serious allegiance to a cause, rejection of distractions and imitations, a degree of (self-)sacrifice and considerable talent. It is conative and involves a greater or lesser element of risk both for the artist and his/her adversaries. There is always the risk, too, of the artist being consumed by his commitment, as was the case for H.G. Wells, whose finest work, The History of Mr Polly (1910) marked a turning point in his career, after which, English literature lost a great writer and the forces of social reform gained a militant: another indication of the absolute necessity for an artist to resist the temptation to step beyond the limits of his/her own special talent.

2. Philological considerations

35The second part of this paper is devoted to a closer look at the etymology of the verb commit, followed by a tour of the corresponding words used by a small selection of contemporary Indo-European languages with a view to discovering to what extent we all mean the same thing when we evoke the notion of ‘commitment’.

2.1 commit

36The earliest meanings of mittō ?< *smittō appear to have been ‘let go, release, throw’, or, when followed by an infinitive, ‘omit (to do)’ or ‘desist (from doing)’. These point to a general underlying sense of ‘abandon’. However, any ulterior etymology is uncertain, particularly as *(s)mittō has no surviving cognates in other early attested IE languages (cf. Gr. πέμπω; Goth. sandjan; Skt. pra-iş; OCS (po-)sŭlati). The sense of ‘send’ is first attested in Ennius (third - second century BC). From then onwards there is a gradual specialisation in meaning to give ‘send, put’.

37The Latin preposition and preverb cum (< com), con-, co- is attested in all periods. As a preverb it indicates union, as in coeō ‘go together’, or functions as a mark of perfective aspect, as in conficiō (< faciō) ‘finish off’. The close and permanent association of preverb and verb and led to a gradual semantic weakening of the former, though, interestingly, comes (< *comit-s) (> Fr. comte and ultimately PE count(y)) ‘one who travels with’ displays the opposite tendency. The preverbal usage is attested in other Italic languages and has cognates in Ir. com-, co-, and very probably in Goth. ga-, corresponding to NHG ge-, which functions either as a largely meaningless preverb, as in ge-fallen ‘please’; ge-hören ‘belong’; ge-nießen ‘enjoy’, or as a marker of perfective aspect in past participles, e.g. ge-boren ‘born’; ge-funden ‘found’; geschloßen ‘closed’. Still well attested in both functions in OE, e.g. (ġe-)faran ‘go, travel’; (ġe-)folgodon ‘followed’, it only survives today in words like enough (< OE ġenog) and handiwork (< OE handġeweorc).

38Lat. committō, as we have seen, has a wide variety of meanings. Ernout and Meillet (op. cit.) mention the sense of ‘engagement’ as coming from ‘la langue ecclésiastique, but without providing any examples, unfortunately. We are nonetheless able to trace the approximate intra-Latin semantic trajectory of the meaning that interests us starting with ‘abandon’, passing through ‘put’ and ‘send’ and culminating in ‘commit morally’. The borrowed Latin form is first attested in English in Chaucer (fourteenth century) with the sense of ‘entrust’, the meanings ‘perpetrate’ and ‘engage, involve’ appearing in the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries respectively. The 1993 SOED entry for commit, gives the adjectival use of committed as dating from lME with the definition ‘… obliged to adhere (to a course of action), morally dedicated (to a doctrine or cause), having a political, artistic, etc. commitment’.

2.2 French: engager; consacrer ; dédier; (dé)vouer

39Contemporary French uses three principal verbs to express the notion of commitment. We shall consider them in turn.

2.2.1 engager

40Although the word engagement is attested in French as early as early as the end of the 12th century, the Robert 1969 classes the syntagmas littérature engagée, auteur, écrivain engagé as neologisms, giving quotations from Sartre (Situations II, 1948: 123-124) and Benda (Trahison des clercs, 1946: 65). It is clearly a compound of the preposition-preverb en and the noun gage, an 11th century borrowing from Frk. *waddi, corresponding to attested forms Goth. wadi; ON veð; OE wedd; PE wed; wager; OHG wet(t)i; Lat. vas, vadis (< Gmc) ‘person who stands caution’ all these come from a Germanic form *waðjam ‘pledge’, for which no IE root is postulated, for lack of cognates outside Germanic. The French word refers, etymologically speaking, to a financial security in exchange for obedience, and has nothing fundamentally to do with the notion of a personal promise. To be engagé in the artistic sense still preserves this financial connotation, by virtue of its clear relation to gages (‘wages’) and soldat engagé (‘professional soldier’) in which both terms refer to his payment.

2.2.2 consacrer

41The strong religious and ceremonial connotation of this verb derived from Latin sacer, from an earlier *sakros ‘celui ou ce qui ne peut être touché sans être souillé, ou sans souiller’ (Ernout and Meillet, op. cit.) renders it of doubtful usefulness with secular causes such as an ideology or a political system. Collocations such as *un auteur consacré and *la peinture consacrée are blocked, notwithstanding the everyday use of the verb in such expressions as consacrer la matinée au jardinage and consacrer un quart d’heure à quelqu’un. However, contemporary French admits of such–strictly sacrilegious–concoctions such as consacrer sa vie à la torture des victimes, which can only have been borrowed from the secondary, everyday usage of the verb. Such profanity suggests that French has got itself into a semantico-cultural knot here.

2.2.3 dédier

42This verb, the reflex of a Latin compound dē + dīcō, where the preverb has an aspectual function, also has oratorical and ceremonial origins, the simple verb representing an IE root *deik-/dik- ‘show’, which also appears as Goth. ga-teihan ‘announce’, NHG zeigen ‘show’ and OE tæċan > PE teach. It is used principally with personal indirect objects, as in L’ouvrage est dédié à la mémoire de Gustav Mahler. The sequence *auteur dédié politiquement is not attested and is thus not a possible substitute for auteur engagé politiquement, or a translation of PE a dedicated author, itself ambiguous.

2.2.4 vouer/dévouer

43Vouer, reflex of Lat. vōtum, pp. of voveō ‘make a vow, wish for, desire’ has taken on a pejorative connotation in contemporary French, and denotes a wholesale subjugation of the subject to some authority or force, often with negative consequences (doubtless influenced by well-worn collocations such as voué à l’alcool; voué à l’échec; voué à disparaître). As such, it comes only marginally into to realm of artistic commitment. Dévouer, a sixteenth century borrowing of Latin dēvoveō, has preserved its noble connotation and something of its ceremonial and sacred origins. It does not habitually collocate with art or literature.

44Thus we are left with the neologism engagé, possibly made prominent by the Second World War and popularised by Jean-Paul Sartre, as the only real means at the disposal of French speakers to express artistic commitment.

2.3 German: sich verpflichten; versprechen; sich binden; engagieren

45German uses four verbs to express ‘commitment’. We will treat them each in turn.

2.3.1 sich verpflichten

  • 12 Pfeifer (1997) gives, as other illustrations of this resultative use of ver-: verpacken ‘wrap up’; (...)

46This weak reflexive verb is derived, by the addition of a resultative use of the prefix ver-12 and a verbal inflexion from the noun Pflicht, first attested in OHG around the end of the tenth century in the form phliht with the meanings of ‘care’; ‘order’; ‘protection’; ‘commission’. The field of reference widened during the MHG period to include meanings such as ‘surveillance’; ‘participation’; ‘service’; ‘obligation’; ‘morality’. The verb today, when used reflexively sich verpflichten has a narrower and more neutral meaning of ‘participate’; ‘take an interest in’. Clearly cognate with PE plight ‘sorry and dangerous situation’, this German verb, unlike French s’engager seems not to have any connotation of finance or contracted affair, and is purely moral.

2.3.2 versprechen

  • 13 Pfeifer (1997) gives verschließen ‘lock, enclose’; versperren ‘obstruct’ as other examples of this (...)

47This strong verb is much older than the derived verpflichten. Here the force of the preverb is one of intensification13. Rather than being reflexive, the verb is more often used as a past participle, e.g. Ich bin heute Abend versprochen ‘I have an engagement/I am spoken for this evening’ or di-transitively, as in Ich habe ihr meine Hilfe versprochen ‘I have promised her my help’.

  • 14 Pfeifer (op. cit.) gives verführen ‘seduce’; verwechseln ‘confuse’; sich verzählen ‘miscalculate’ a (...)

48The fact that this verb is not widely used in the sense of artistic commitment, may be due to quite another use of versprechen, in which ver- has its pejorative function14 and produces the meaning ‘commit an error’ or ‘be mistaken’: an unfortunate coincidence.

  • 15 For example, when Hroðgar, king of the Danes, informs Beowulf of the death of his kinsman Æschere a (...)

49Given the centrality in commitment of the (giving of one’s) word and speech in any act of commitment, it would seem useful at this point to look at the etymology of NHG sprechen and PE speak. These forms, of which the r-less English is secondary (both sprecan and specan are attested in OE), along with Du. spreken, OS sprāka, ON spraka, are related in form and meaning to Dan. spraga ‘crackle’, Gr. σφαραγέομαι ‘crackle, splutter, hiss’ and Skt. sphūrj- ‘crackle, rustle, rumble’ (Buck, 1949: 1255), pointing to an IE base *(s)p(h)ereg-/(s)p(h)reg-, seen by Pfeifer (op. cit.) as an extension of the IE base of PE spur and NHG Sporn ‘spur’: *sp(h)er(ə) ‘shiver’, ‘wiggle’, ‘spray’, ‘squirt’, ‘spring’, ‘cast’. This imitative association suggests a slang or at least a popular origin, a hypothesis borne out by the existence of a more formal OE weak verb, frequently occurring in Beowulf15 and a small number of other texts: maþelian (= OHG mahelen ‘promise’) derived from OE mæþel ‘assembly, council, speech’, (= OHG mahal ‘court, compact’). This kind of speech was evidently oratorical and public, cf. Goth. gamōtjan, ON mæta and OE mētan, all meaning ‘meet’. The emphasis of NHG sprechen and PE speak on the physiological process of phonation as opposed to sagen/say, which focus on its result (one can speak without saying anything, but it is impossible to say something without speaking) is perhaps a survival of the association of speech with noise rather than with the intelligent formulation of ideas, cf. the Greek couple λαλέω ‘talk, chat’ (clearly imitative) vs. λέγω ‘speak’ (with a primary sense of ‘select’).

2.3.3 sich binden

50This class III strong verb (Ablaut -a-, -u-), cognate with OE, OS and Goth. bindan (same meanings), Gr. πείσμα ‘cord, cable’ and πενθερός ‘father/brother-in-law’, with Lat offendix ‘knot of a priest’s bonnet’ (‘apex) and Skt. bándhuh, ‘link’, ‘blood relation(ship), companion’, badhnāmi ‘I bind’, denotes ‘binding, bonding, winding, linking, knotting, blood relation(ship)’. Apart from its primary sense, the reflexive form is used in the sense of a binding contract, such as marriage, and appears not to be readily associated with artistic commitment.

2.3.4 engagieren16

  • 16 My sincere thanks to Dr Niall Bond (personal communication) for stressing the importance of this lo (...)

51This verb, derived from the French loanword das Engagement (pronounced as in French) is the verb most commonly used in the contemporary language to denote artistic commitment, which is usually translated by künstlerisches Engagement. The fact that German has chosen a French loanword rather than an English one is very possibly due to the importance of Jean-Paul Sartre as a literary and philosophical figure in post-war Europe. The exact meaning of the word is obscure to all but the small number of German speakers who have an in-depth knowledge of French, resulting in the widespread opacity of a word the majority of people know how to use but cannot be said to understand.

52Thus contemporary German presents us with ‘commitment’ expressed by words expressing essentially notions of ‘duty’, ‘participation’, ‘interest’, ‘promise’ and ‘binding’. Engagement, the only word currently used to express artistic commitment, evokes approximately the same notions, though only by virtue of collocation and contextual inference and not directly.

2.4 Italian: impegnarsi

  • 17 Despite the semantic parallel, this word is unrelated to PE pawn, borrowed, via OF from Gmc. *panda (...)

53Italian uses the reflexive verb impegnarsi ‘assume an obligation’, ‘involve oneself in an enterprise’, ‘contract a debt’, ‘pawn one’s belongings’ (Zingarelli, 1986), the base of which, pegno ‘pledge’, ‘token’ is the reflex of Lat. pignus,17 a legal term meaning ‘pledge, ‘surety’, the plural form of which pignora (?< *pignosa), in the poetic diction of Imperial times came to mean ‘love tokens’ i.e. ‘children’ and, by extension, ‘any person(s) dear to the speaker’. Ernout and Meillet suggest a very plausible association with pingō ‘embroider with threads of various colours’, ‘tattoo’, ‘paint’, which supposes an original meaning of pignus as ‘a mark made to record the assumption of an obligation’, in which case, the IE base of impegnarsi would be *phikh-/pheikh- (Pokorny 1959: 794) and assimilated by Gamkrelidze and Ivanov (1995: 543) to *phi-kh- ‘pine, pitch’ and attested in, for example, Gr. ποιχίλος ‘multi-coloured’, ‘spotted’, OPruss. peisāi ‘they write’, ON ‘paint’, and OCS pišǫ ‘(I) write’.

54As an illustration of the nominal form impegno, a back-formation from the verb, Zingarelli gives, ‘l’impegno degli scrittori del dopoguerra’, ‘the commitment of post-war writers’, indicating that French engagement and Italian impegno, as applied to artistic creation, both date from the second half of the 1940’s, cf. the contemporary socially committed Italian cinema, as illustrated by Roberto Rossellini’s Germania Anno Zero (1948) and Giuseppe de Santis’ Riso Amaro (1949).

55The link between (artistic) commitment and a pledge is perfectly clear in Italian, given the survival of the legal term pegno. Thus a committed writer (uno scrittore impegnato) is transparently one who has accepted an obligation. Whether or not he/she is seen by the person in the street as being ‘one who bears the mark of that obligation’, is much less certain.


56Though it is perhaps an over-simplification to suggest that non-committed = contemplative art with individual, atemporal appeal, focuses on satisfaction, while committed = conative art, with a public, hic et nunc appeal, focuses on dissatisfaction, the act of commitment/engagement/Engagement/impegno, whatever its semantic and philological underpinnings, and whatever weight we attribute to Whorfian-type considerations, does appear to subjugate the artist and his work to dichotomies and debates which, a priori have nothing to do with artistic endeavour and can therefore be seen at best as irrelevant and at worst as interfering and stifling. Can non-committed art (i.e. production situated towards the graffiti end of the continuum) be said to be in any way greater or nobler than art situated towards the Communist Manifesto end, or vice-versa? Ultimately, it comes down to the question of whether art, expression and aesthetics have any serious justification outside that of the furtherance of the good of humanity as a whole, which begs the question of the entitlement of any mortal or group of mortals to say what that good might consist of and how it might be brought about. The right of the artist to choose whether or not to commit himself socially and to follow his own creative inclinations should surely be defended, if we are to eschew sterile and stultifying political and commercial hegemony masquerading as art. Once this is agreed upon, a significant proportion of the effort of any society must needs be committed to preserving the freedom of art and the artist. As in all things, it is a question of balance, and as in all art worthy of the name, a question of restraint.

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1 The so-called Whorfian hypothesis takes as axiomatic the supposed fact that an individual’s perception and representation of reality will be conditioned by the repertoires, categories and processes of the language(s) he or she knows.

2 In its monotransitive usage, commit takes a restricted number of direct objects, e.g. adultery; bigamy; crime; murder; perjury; sin, and does not interest us directly here.

3 Note the redundancy of com- […] cum.

4 Note the absence of an explicit direct object.

5 Note the absence of an explicit direct object.

6 For a discussion of the term conative, see Jakobson (1963: 216).

7 The standard, if approximate, translation of the original German: ‘Proletaria aller Länder vereinigt euch!’

8 Though Marx continually used false names when renting premises in order to evade detection by the police, he committed himself and his work by publishing it in his own name. His life could not be described as comfortable, having endured severe poverty, particularly in London, and having died, stateless, at the age of sixty-five, without having seen any real evidence of the revolution he strove to precipitate: a high price to pay for his commitment, not to an existing ideal, but to its very inception.

9 Recall Marx’s Thesis N° XI (1845): ‘Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point is to change it„ translated from the original German: „Die Philosphen haben die Welt nur verschieden interpretiert; es kommt aber darauf an, sie zu verändern„. ‘Thesen über Feuerbach„ in Engels, Friedrich, Ludwig Feuerbach und der Ausgang der Klassischen deutsche Philosophie. Stuttgart: J.H.W. Dietz: (1888): 69-72.

10 An example of Charlie and his Orchestra’s politicised swing can be heard on

11 The music of Charlie and his Orchestra compares very favourably with that of Pennsylvania-born English contemporary Charlie Kunz and his orchestra, which can be heard on or with that of Edgar Hayes and his orchestra, which can be heard on

12 Pfeifer (1997) gives, as other illustrations of this resultative use of ver-: verpacken ‘wrap up’; verbluten ‘bleed to death’; vertilgen ‘annihilate’.

13 Pfeifer (1997) gives verschließen ‘lock, enclose’; versperren ‘obstruct’ as other examples of this intensifying use of ver-.

14 Pfeifer (op. cit.) gives verführen ‘seduce’; verwechseln ‘confuse’; sich verzählen ‘miscalculate’ as other examples of this pejorating function.

15 For example, when Hroðgar, king of the Danes, informs Beowulf of the death of his kinsman Æschere at the hands of Grendel’s mother, his heartfelt speech opens with Hroðgar maþelode … ‘Hroðgar spoke …’ (line 1321). Similarly, Beowulf’s uplifting reply opens with Bēowulf maþelode ‘Beowulf spoke’ (line 1473), (Wyatt 1933). See also Daniels (1999).

16 My sincere thanks to Dr Niall Bond (personal communication) for stressing the importance of this loanword in the contemporary language.

17 Despite the semantic parallel, this word is unrelated to PE pawn, borrowed, via OF from Gmc. *panda > NHG Pfand ‘pledge, guarantee’, which has been seen by some to be ultimately borrowed from OF pan < Lat. pannus ‘piece of cloth’.

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Henry DANIELS, « ‘Promising’? ‘Hiring’? ‘Coloring’? ‘Pawning’? Reflections on the notion of artistic ‘commitment’ in the Indo-European arena », E-rea [En ligne], 13.2 | 2016, mis en ligne le 15 juin 2016, consulté le 05 décembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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EA 4182, Université de Bourgogne, France
Henry Daniels is Emeritus Professor of English Linguistics at the Université de Bourgogne. His principal publications are in the fields of English phonology and lexicology, Old and Middle English, Indo-European, onomastics and the language and history of the Great War.

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