‘The end is nigh, the end is near, the end is bound to come next year.’ As doom and gloom goes, this prediction is not only charming – impeccable metre, simple but correct rhyme – but also linguistically interesting.
Its main attraction lies in the three words beginning with n: nigh, near and next. Say them out loud – does anything strike you? If not, let me help you by spelling them the Old English way: neah, near, niehsta. Rather like near, nearer, nearest, aren’t they? Or like high, higher, highest, for that matter. And that’s no coincidence, because they were indeed degrees of comparison, as grammarians call them: the positive neah meaning ‘near’, the comparative near meaning ‘nearer’ and the superlative niehsta meaning ‘nearest’.
Much has changed since, obviously: their spellings, the pronunciations, but most remarkably their grammatical functions. Nigh is nowadays an adjective, but mostly an adverb: “It is nigh impossible.” Near has several functions, but their meaning has conserved next to nothing of the old comparative; it’s more like ‘close by’ or ‘close to’. Next has changed even more: its main meaning is now ‘following’, as in ‘the next day’. Combined with to, it means ‘beside’ or ‘almost’. The modern words nearer and nearest were formed later, after near had become a positive rather than a comparative.
Things get even wilder when German and Dutch are brought into the story. Back in the days when English had neah for ‘near’, they had nah. As in English, the adjective and its degrees of comparison have changed a great deal, but in different and even more productive ways.
Modern German has no fewer than five descendants: a preposition nach for ‘to’ or ‘after’, and all of four adjectives: nah, näher, nähest are simply the old degrees of comparison, quite faithfully maintained, while nächst is very similar to our adjective next in meaning, formation and even pronunciation.
Dutch has done it differently again. Here, the adjectival meaning of na, nader and naast is mostly figurative and rather formal, though expressions such as nader onderzoek for ‘closer inspection’ and naaste omgeving for ‘direct environment’ are not uncommon. But remarkably, all three forms also survive in high-frequency prepositions: na is ‘after’, naar (a shortened version of nader) is ‘to, toward’ and naast means ‘next to’, ‘beside’.
Love thy neighbour
As if this weren’t enough, at least one English noun bears traces of the old n(e)ah: neighbour. The last syllable comes from a word meaning ‘dweller’, so a neighbour is simply somebody ‘dwelling nigh’ – or to put it in more modern terms, ‘living next door’. German and Dutch have words with the same roots: Nachbar and nabuur (though in modern Dutch, the na- is usually dropped).
But neighbour also has a specialised religious meaning, as in the Biblical imperative ‘Love thy neighbour’. Here, German and Dutch do not use their usual Nachbar and (na)buur. Instead, they call this particular type of neighbour Nächster and naaste respectively, literally ‘next’ or ‘nearest’. And why not? After all, if thou lovest thy neighbours, this brings them even closer to thee than merely ‘nigh’.