Published on October 8, 2009
a world of words pamela fox I’ve always had a thing for words – In high school, I made the people carpooling with me bring in words to discuss during each morning ride, and in uni, I plastered “word of the day” posters all over campus. Now, I want to share my favorite part about words: their deep origins and vast connections.
evolution First, some starter knowledge. Just like animals, languages evolve over time and branch into new languages. Linguists classify these languages into families, and then identify a root or proto language for each family. There are 94 language families in the world, and over 6900 currently spoken languages.
families Our English language comes from the Germanic branch of the Indo-European family, the most spoken family in the world. A language is like a distinct species, but instead of the ability to interbreed, you have the ability to understand everyone else speaking that same language. Now - you guys might find it harder to understand me than native Aussies. That’s cuz languages are divided into things called dialects.
dialects A dialect is still intelligible by any speaker of the language, but can differ in pronunciation, vocabulary, or grammer. The Aussie dialect is actually closer to the Southern US dialect than my own from New York, which is why I say fisher and y’all say ‘fisha’. Besides regional dialects, there are also social dialects– like ebonics, or the one many of you use – leet speak!
Proto-World? Just like all humans evolved from one amoeba, some linguists think that every language in the world evolved from just one. They look for words in diverse languages that have similar meanings and spellings, like “maliq” for breast/suck/neck/swallow. But it’s nearly impossible to prove they’re related, because meanings and morphology can both change so much over time.
So, we may never figure out if we all share the same parent language, and we may argue endlessly over what constitutes a dialect of English, but either way, the fact remains that the languages in the world have all influenced each other in big ways, and I’m going to show you how.
inheritance word wurdan *were (speak, say) First, they influence eachother in the obvious way – a child language inherits words from its parents, usually modifying them slightly over time. Example: The English word “word” comes from the proto-Germanic “wurdan” which comes from the proto-indo-european root “were”, meaning to speak or say.
borrowing But a more interesting type of influence is one called borrowing. Languages often borrow words from another language during an invasion or colonization, and typically they borrow words for a particular type of thing – like the names of the invading country’s animals. These borrowed words are called loan words.
loan words word semantics (meaning) morphology (~spelling) café music budget café bougette musique A word is composed of its meaning and spelling, and when it is borrowed into a language as a loan word, those aspects may stay the same or diverge. Examples: The french word café has remained the same, musique changed in spelling to music, and bougette changed in meaning from “small leather purse” to our modern meaning of budget.
origins of English “ English doesn’t just borrow words from other languages, it chases them down back alleys and then goes through their pockets for spare metaphors.” – George Bernard Shaw English is particularly well known for borrowing words, with about 75% of our words coming from other languages – though mostly in the same indo european family. You could almost think of English as a language that is Germanic in syntax but Romantic in vocabulary. Let’s look at some of the ways that English borrows.
“verb” verb verbe *were (speak, say) verbum First, a familiar example. The English “Verb” came from Old French verbe, from Latin verbum, and ultimately from the same proto-indo-european root as “word”. So, word and verb are in fact, cognates – words that share a common root. One was borrowed, the other was inherited.
doublets chief/chef frenetic/frantic host/guest secure/sure When two words in the same language have the same root but entered from different routes, linguists call them doublets or etymological twins. It usually happens when a language borrows from another at 2 different points in its history, and happened often in English with words with Latin roots. Some examples are chief and chef, and host and guest.
“tea” tê chá 茶 Sometimes we borrow from way outside our language family. English gets the word “tea” from Dutch traders in the south of China, who heard one pronunciation of the symbol for tea. Another 40 languages of the world use “cha” from Portuguese traders who heard the other pronunciation. “cha” later entered English from Indian “chai”, and now all Starbucks-lovers know it.
“orange” naranga-s narang naranj naranjo naranza orenge Since England wasn’t the best place for growing fruits, a lot of our fruit names come from other languages, like the notoriously unrhymable word “orange”. Orange trees first grew in China, then the word started in India, traveled over 6 languages, and eventually landed in our laps. And a few centuries later, we decided it was a pretty good word for the color, too.
“Orangutan” orang-utan orang-outang Sometimes people get confused when they borrow a word. When Dutch people heard Malays referring to the “orangutan”s of the woods, they assumed they meant the funny looking orange haired apes – when actually they meant the native tribesman. But now we will always refer to the apes as orangutans – meaning “man of the wild woods” – which actually fits pretty well.
re-borrowing le bœuf beef le biftek beefsteak el bistec Usually a word is taken from a language and never given back – so really loanword is a misnomer. But, sometimes a language takes it back after it’s changed a bit. The english took beef from French, combined it with steak to mean a cut of beef, and then French and Spanish thought that was nifty and took it back as bistec.
mirror mireor mirari (to wonder at) mirus (wonderful) “ mirror” Once we understand the origin of a word, we can suddenly understand the origins of many other words, and gain a new perspective on their meaning. And, well, that discovery is what makes all of this so exciting (for me). For example, the word “mirror” comes from the French word for reflecting glass, which comes from the Latin verb mirari to wonder at, and the Latin root mirus meaning wonderful.
marvel mirandus (worthy to be admired) mirari (to wonder at) miracle miraculum (obj. of wonder) mirage Miranda merveille mirabilia (wonderful things) admire “ mirus” relatives Latin French English admirer Mirabelle That latin root “mirus” inspired many a derivative in its own language and others. English gained the words miracle, marvel, admire, and mirage through Latin or through a sidestep in French, as well as the girl’s names Miranda and Mirabelle. So, now you can use etymology as an excuse for baby-making tonight. *wink
*(s)mei (to smile, be astonished) smila smile “ smile” Now, if we go back even farther to the Proto-Indo-european root for mirus “smei”, we find that it produced the Germanic word “smila” and then, our “smile”. So the next time you smile at a miracle while admiring yourself in a mirror.. well, you can thank all your indo-european parents and invaders.
learn more http:// delicious.com/fkedupmonkey/worldwords If you’re now inspired to learn more about word meanings, there are a lot of places to look. You can subscribe to podcasts or RSS feeds for words of the day, or whenever you’re curious – look up a word in the dictionary, and trace its roots back as far as possible. You never know what wondrous marvels you’ll find.
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