Wednesday 27 May 2020

What happens to 6000-year-old twins when they grow up?

Words, words, words. So many of them. Where did they all come from? How did they all get here? Well, in this post I’ll look at three examples of how words from the same root have wandered alone through the highways and byways of history and geography, only to end up together again in English. In modern English, we have a fair number of words which come from the same ancient root. I don’t mean they all came through Old English (OE), but they started out as siblings in the womb of the same ancient language and made their ways into modern English by different routes from their roots. I’ll look at three ways that sibling words have reached modern English: through maintaining their meanings as more or less the same throughout their histories; through changing their meanings out of all recognition; and through taking different routes based on two distinct possibilities suggested by the nature of the ancient root. This post does have some linguistic terminology and examples, but only what’s necessary, and I think they’re easy enough to understand.

First of all, I’d like to give a bit of background information. English is part of the Indo-European (IE) language group, the origins of which stretch back over 6000 years. Although we can never know exactly how words were pronounced in IE, we can postulate their likely forms and pronunciations based on the words that have come down from it into ancient written languages, like Latin, Greek, Sanskrit, Hittite and Avestan, and also modern IE languages, which range over most of Europe and through Iran into the Indian sub-continent. Based on the recorded forms in all these languages, the likely ancient forms can be postulated, albeit with some variation and uncertainty. Postulated forms are always written with an asterisk. IE also gave rise to the Germanic language group by way of Proto-Germanic (PG) some 3000 years ago. This group is made up of West Germanic (Dutch, English, German and Frisian) and North Germanic (Swedish, Norwegian, Danish, Icelandic and Faroese). There was also East Germanic, the most well-known of which was Gothic, the oldest written Germanic language, but the last remnants of that group finally died out over three hundred years ago.

Now for the good part. Firstly, let’s look at two words in modern English which are probably the closest we can find to identical twins, growing up and going their own ways, but keeping pretty well the same meanings over all that time despite being sundered for so long, and then meeting up and saying: “Gosh, you look different, well, actually, not really”. IE had a form which is rendered as *peḱu, probably pronounced something like “peck-you”. This root had a variety of derivations, but only two interest us here: Latin pecus and PG *feHu. We can see here that the original p was preserved in Latin, but was changed to f in PG, and the original sound became c in Latin, but H (pronounced like ch in “loch”) in PG. The meaning of both these forms was “cattle, livestock” and by extension “property, money”. These associations are fairly unsurprising given that livestock has always been a basis of wealth in many societies, and the people who spoke the original IE language were almost certainly nomadic herders. The Latin pecus produced pecū, “cattle”, then pecūnia, “money, property”, and then pecūniārius, “pertaining to money”, from which we derive pecuniary. In the meantime, Proto-Germanic produced OE feoh, “money, property, cattle”. So far so good.

However, feoh did not come down to us in modern English. Instead, we inherited a similar form, from another Germanic language, Frankish, which had the form *fehu, from which *fehu-od was formed, meaning “payment-estate”. The Franks, of course, settled in the Roman province of Gaul in the 3rd century and gave the country its new name – yes, the French are actually Germans, in a sense, and around 10% of French words come from Frankish. This word was also borrowed into Medieval Latin in the form of feudum, which gives us feudal. After the Norman conquest, thousands of OE words were replaced by French words, one of which was the Anglo-French fee, which came into Middle English with the meaning of “an estate belonging to a feudal lord”. It soon came to mean “payment for services provided”, hence our modern fee. Not content with borrowing it once as fee, English later borrowed it again from French as fief. It’s fascinating to think that the French word, borrowed from a Germanic language, replaced the lost OE word and kept not only the same basic meaning of the original, but also the meaning of its Latin-derived twin, pecuniary, after being separated for thousands of years. Just a word of warning: if you want to pay your university fees, I don’t think they accept cows any more -  it's not the dung thing.

Now I’d like to turn to the second set of words passing through Latin and OE into modern English, but with such different meanings that it’s surprising that they once had any connection at all. These are the unruly siblings that refuse to acknowledge the resemblance they once had. When they all met up again in modern English, they all asked: “Do I know you from somewhere?” The IE root probably had three forms, *leis-/lois-/lis-, and the meaning was something like “trace, track”. Now, the idea of tracing or tracking could lead to a number of developments, in this case three. Firstly, and most basically, tracking is something done on foot, so the idea of a path or walkway, or even tracks left in the ground, is a likely development. This also stretched to the modes of tracking, namely, the feet themselves. Secondly, tracing and tracking can lead to finding out about something, gaining knowledge. Thirdly, tracking may lead to persistence in following. Let’s look at the second development first, as it’s the most important one. The IE root gave rise to the PG verb *liznōjanan (PG j is pronounced like y), “follow along a track”, which eventually developed into OE leornian, which gives us learn. Another form, *laizijanan, developed into the modern German lehren, “teach”, but the related word in OE didn’t reach modern English. However, a third form, *laizō, became OE lār, “learning, knowledge, doctrine”, giving us modern English lore. Clearly, in the minds of the early Germanic peoples, tracking and tracing were good ways of gaining knowledge. I hope you’re keeping track.

Another derivation from the IE root which came down to us via PG involves tracking and following of a different kind, not with the mind but with persistence, the third development given above. PG *laistjanan developed the meaning of “follow, perform, carry out” and OE inherited it as lǣstan, “accomplish, carry out”, with the meaning developing into “continue, endure”, which is the meaning of the modern verb last. The final Germanic derivation from the same IE root in modern English, albeit a highly specialised and little used one, retains the use of the foot as opposed to the track itself, as outlined in the first development given above. PG also inherited the root word *laistaz from IE and this became lāst in OE, meaning “track, footprint”. This found its way into modern English as last, which is a foot-shaped block used by shoemakers to model their wares. Incidentally, the most common word with this spelling, the adjective last, is actually a contraction of latest, and has nothing to do with this root. If you’ve lasted to this point, I hope you can keep on the right track.

Now we come to the final (last?) derivation in modern English from this IE root, though this came to us courtesy of Latin, and in a rather strange way. The IE root turned up in Latin as līra, denoting a rather specialised type of track, namely “furrow”, as in the long, straight line produced by a plough. If a Roman ploughman couldn’t stay on a straight line, he would literally veer “off the furrow”, or dē līrā. This produced a verb dēlīrāre, “go off the furrow”, with the extended meaning of “go mad, rave”, and a noun dēlīrium, which modern English then borrowed as delirium, subsequently creating the adjective delirious and the medical term delirium tremens, which describes the effects of losing a dependency on alcohol. This also begs the question of whether Roman ploughmen were frequently drunk. I hope you can last out, though, without going delirious.

The concluding set of examples shows how a root can separate into different strands which can still remain true to the original meaning in their own ways, while showing clear divergence and different interpretations of that original meaning, sort of identical twins going their own ways but staying true to mum in some way. IE had a root *al-, with the basic meaning of “grow, nourish”. This produced a variety of derivations in Latin, including these: almus/alma, “nourishing”, as in the expression alma mater, literally “nourishing mother”, the institution where a graduate studied; adolēscere (with the prefix ad- and the change from a to o), “grow up”, which gives us adolescent and adult; alimentum, “nourishment”, from which we get alimentary and alimentation; and alimōnia, “nourishment, sustenance”, from which we get alimony. The IE *al- root was also extended in another way, *al-d-/ *al-dh-, which produced two types of growing, one in Latin altus and a different one in PG *alđáz. The Latin form focused on the aspect of growing in height, while the PG form did the same for age. Hence, altus produced altitude and altimeter, while *alđáz produced OE ald and eald, which give us old, elder and alderman, among other words. French has also bequeathed us more derivations from Latin after altus became haut, namely haute cuisine, oboe (originally haut bois, “high wood”, via Italian), and haughty, with the spelling mistakenly changed. For good measure, we also got alto from Italian. I can just imagine the reactions of quarrelling teenagers 6000 years ago when their parents shouted: “I wish you lot would just grow up!” – “which way?”

So, there we have it – three ways to get two or more words from the same root, but with widely varying results. There are a lot more of these out there as well – you just have to look for them. Or maybe I’ll bring them to you. Let me summarise this discussion in this way: for pecuniary reasons, you need to pay your fees when you learn in your alma mater, especially when you’re old enough, but don’t get haughty or you may find yourself suffering from delirium. Have fun word-hunting.

Friday 1 May 2020

The Humming Bird, the Possum and the Egg Plant

Have you ever wondered how things get their names? What are the processes by which words are created or adapted for new ideas, objects, animals and plants, among other things? Probably, the three most common methods of naming novelties are: thinking of a new term to describe the new phenomenon; applying a known term to the new phenomenon; or, most simply, just taking a word from another language, either directly or through a long line of borrowing. I’ll explore each of these methods one by one.

I’ll start with the practice of coining a new term in your own language for a new discovery. There are various examples in various languages: French “pomme de terre”, literally “earth apple”, for “potato”; Italian “pomodoro”, literally “apple of gold” for “tomato”; and Afrikaans “aardvark”, literally “earth pig” for, well, “aardvark” (even though they’re not related to pigs at all). Here are two examples which can amply illustrate this way of naming novelties.

When English speakers first heard about a large, spiky-headed fruit growing on a bush in South America, they referred to it as a “pine apple”. In contrast, French adopted the word “nanas” from Tupi, a language of South America, which became “ananas” and then spread around Europe and the rest of the world. The Spanish, however, while adopting “ananas” also referred to the fruit as “piña”, “pinecone”, giving us that lovely rum cocktail and silly love song, while also giving English the excuse to extend the “pine” idea by adding “apple”. English could have adopted “ananas” as well, but eventually the apple of the pine won out. Interestingly, although the Portuguese in particular were in touch with Tupi in Brazil, they made “abacaxi” the word for the pineapple as opposed to “ananas”, even though the abacaxi is only one kind of pineapple, allegedly the tastiest.

Another American phenomenon which needed naming consisted of delightful, little, shiny, multicoloured birds, which flitted about, drinking nectar from flowers, while furiously beating their tiny wings. This is effectively a case of sound and vision (well, some of them are electric blue) – English took the sound, while Portuguese took the vision. We named them “humming birds”, which has a certain beauty to it, but the Portuguese went one step further in my opinion, naming them “beija-flor”, literally “kiss-flower”, one of the most beautifully poetic descriptions of a living being that you’ll ever come across. Most other languages have adopted the term “colibri”, which arrived from a Caribbean source via French, although French also coined “oiseau mouche”, literally “bird-fly”, a somewhat less attractive description.

Let’s move on to the second way of naming novelties, which is to use a term that already refers to something, and apply it to something else. First, we can consider the word “possum” shortened from “opossum”, which is the name of a number of species of small marsupial omnivores originating in the Americas. In fact, the name “opossum” comes from a Powhatan word meaning “white dog-like animal”. It was assimilated into English in the 17th C and was later taken to Australia with the English settlers. There, the settlers applied the name to various marsupial species that resembled the original opossums of the Americas, albeit not closely related. It’s an interesting case of a word adopted by a dominant language on one side of the world being transported and applied to a creature on the other side. As is often the case with words, the popular name became current in Australian English and even became a term of endearment used by female impersonators. It is, however, totally unrelated to the Latin “possum”, which means “I can”. There’s a "possum" joke in there somewhere.

My second example is that of the buffalo, or rather, the bison, in America. Zoologically speaking, there are two extant species of bison, the American and the European, which are fairly closely related but distinct. Going further back, about 10 million years, they split off from the buffalo of Asia and Africa, as well as other bovines, including cows. The word “buffalo” comes ultimately from Greek “boubalos”, “wild ox”, via Latin “bubalus” and either Spanish “búfalo" or Italian “bufalo". When American bison skins in the process of being cured were first seen by European settlers, it was assumed that they were buffalo skins. This naming became popular, and although the word “bison” (itself a Latinised version of a Germanic word) was applied to them in the late 18th C, it couldn’t dislodge the popular “buffalo” and remains rather technical in use. In any case, “Bison Bill” just doesn’t have the same ring.

Other obvious examples include: “puma”, often referred to as “mountain lion”, even though it’s not technically a lion; “barbary ape”, even though it’s a species of macaque monkey; “koala bear”, even though it’s completely unrelated to bears; and “sago palm”, even though it’s not a palm but a cycad. All of these examples show how terms are reapplied based on appearance, which is perfectly understandable when previously unseen phenomena emerge.

One interesting phenomenon, which is a sort of blending of the first two methods, is a term based on the place or supposed place of origin. These are quite numerous. “Peach” is derived from Greek “Persicon malon”. via Latin “Persicum malum”, Late Latin “pessica” and Old French “peche”. Originally, the Greeks though it came from Persia, although it actually originated in Northwest China, clearly passing through Persia on its way to Europe. Before paper became the standard medium for writing on, parchment was the norm. It was accepted by the Greeks that the practice of using cow leather for writing originated in the city of Pergamon in present day Turkey, so they called it “pergamenon”, which underwent a few changes to arrive at its modern form. One other example is that of lodestones. These are metallic stones which possess a magnetic charge. It’s said that they were abundant in the area of Magnesia on the Maeander on the Aegean coast of modern Turkey. The ancient Greek settlers there took the name of their area of origin, namely Magnesia in Northern Greece. The type of stone in question was called “magnes lithos” by the Greeks, which gives us “magnet”.

Words originating from places often undergo many changes on their way to other languages. The same is true of my last group, which is, perhaps, the most widespread: words taken directly from another language along with the novel discovery, often food. When the Spanish conquistadors arrived in Tenochtitlan, the capital of the Aztec empire and the site of Mexico City, they asked about a certain fruit resembling a pear which they had seen. This fruit was called “ahuacatl” in Nahuatl, the local language. As can be expected, the Spanish found it difficult to pronounce this new word, but over time it changed to become “avocado”, which sounds suspiciously like the Spanish for lawyer, “abogado”. This is a common phenomenon with borrowing words – you make them sound more like your own language, even though they’re actually completely different. One other thing is that “ahuacatl” also meant “testicle”. I’m saying nothing more, except - 
enjoy your guacamole. 

Another foodstuff which is probably more common than any other is sugar. The word doesn’t look very English, but that’s partly because of its journey into English from French, but let’s start at the beginning. Originally, the word didn’t denote something sweet and it wasn’t something you’d freely put in your mouth, especially if you didn’t want to crunch your teeth to pieces. Sanskrit, the ancient literary language of Northern India, used the word “sarkara”, meaning “gravel, grit”, to describe the granules of the sweet stuff produced from a certain local cane. From Sanskrit, it travelled via Persian “shakar” to Arabic, which rendered it “sukkar”. Arabic supplied it to Spanish and Portuguese with the definite article attached – hence “azúcar” and “açúcar” respectively. Medieval Latin created “succarum”, which French duly took it in as “sucre”, passing it onto English. The strange pronunciation in English results from the pronunciation of “u“ in French, rendered as “yu” in English, so “syu” became “shu”. What’s more, the French form also had an alternative with “g”, so we took that on as well. It’s enough to make you grit your teeth.

The names of colours have all kinds of origins: “mauve” comes from the mallow plant, “vermillion” is the colour of crushed worms, “scarlet” comes from the colour of the fine Arabian cloth “siqillat” and “azure” stems from the Persian for lapis lazuli. The most interesting colour here, though, is the one from possibly the most popular fruit in the world. Sanskrit, yes, that language again, had the word “narangas”, which probably originated in a Dravidian language such as Tamil. It travelled west through Persian as “narang" into Arabic as “naranj”. It then entered Spanish as “naranja” and Portuguese as “laranja”. In French, it lost the initial “n” (alongside the change of the "a" to "o"), probably as a result of assimilating the “n” with the indefinite article “une”, so that “une norange” became “une orange”. Then English got it, firstly the fruit and later the colour “orange”. Funnily enough, the word wasn’t initially taken up by German speakers, who called the fruit “Apfelsine”, literally “Chinese apple”, though they caught up eventually.

The last item here is probably my favourite, not in terms of the food, though I’ll happily eat it, but in terms of the massive variations to its name. It originated in Asia, or possibly Africa, and spread out to be cultivated around the Mediterranean, especially by the Arabs. Again, the name originated in a Dravidian language and is evident in the Tamil word “varutunai”. It became “vatingana” in Sanskrit, producing the Hindi word “baingan”. It travelled into Persian as “badingan” and into Arabic as “badinjan”, or “al-badinjan”, with the definite article attached. Now the fun starts.

It arrived in Turkish as “patlican”, moving on into Bulgarian as “patladzhan” and Russian as “baklazhan”. It was adapted into Greek as “melitzana”, and then into Italian as “melanzana”, where it was altered under the influence of the Italian phrase, “mela insana”, “mad apple”. Greek also passed it on to Sicilian, Medieval Latin and French, where it ended up as “melanjan”. A fascinating upshot of this is that, in Trinidad and Tobago they use the word “melongene”, which came from French speakers when they controlled Trinidad, but later the indentured workers from India following slavery brought “baingan“ with them.

Don’t go away – we’re not finished yet. From Arabic, it arrived in Spain as both “berenjena” and “alberenjena”, and in Portugal as “beringela”, and also “bringella”. Those great seafarers, the Portuguese, then took it out and about, back to India as “brinjal”, into Malaya as “berinjala” and over to the Caribbean as “brinjalle”, leading to the folk etymology “brown-jolly”. So, what of English? Well, as usual, we get our new words largely via French. French took the Spanish “alberengena” and turned it into “aubergine”, which looked rather like “auberge”, the French for inn. We finally got it in Britain in the 17th C. However, in America and Australia they decided to use “eggplant”, based on a white version of the aubergine which, well, looked like an egg, taking us back to the first method.

The original word for “aubergine” is probably the mostly widely shared and modified term in history, and its story nicely illustrates how words change in pronunciation as they pass orally from one language to another, and the new speakers try to assimilate them into their speech system as well as they can. So, there we have it. Words can come from anywhere, and can travel anywhere, but that’s the fascination. We sometimes create new terms, adapt known terms or simply take on the term that comes with the novelty. You can always go out and find some more in English. They’re everywhere.

Friday 24 January 2020


I was going through some of my old writing and I came across this poem which I wrote back in 1987. I'm not really a poet, but I had seen a film called Koyaanisqatsi, which was made in 1982, showing how humans are gradually changing the world in ways that we can't control, and I felt the need to put pen to paper.. The title itself is a word from the native American language, Hopi, and means "a life out of balance".  Given what's happening to the world today, I think it has a certain relevance. Try to see the film if you can, and remember that we've come almost forty years since it was made - and how accurate it was!

The poem is reproduced with some small changes from the original. Feel free to disseminate, but please acknowledge.


A land so parched, so drenched in sun,

Fashioned by rivers where no rivers run,

Clouds roll and boil, blue foaming white,

Red screams the sky at the onset of night.

Hostile to humans, yet this is our home,

Living as always with death on the roam,

Countless years back, unknown years more,

Immutable, changing, the earth at our core.

Civilised, pure, destructive and wild,

Gutting earth’s past to better our child,

Scouring deep down, rising up high,

Giving our reasons without knowing why.

Koyaanisqatsi, a life out of tune,

A past slowly dying, a future too soon, 

A life full of reasons, where reason is lost,

The drive to accomplish, whatever the cost.

Thus do we live, and must surely die,

Heedless of Demeter’s desperate cry,

Destroying not only the fruits of our pains,

The very same fruits will destroy all our gains.

Marc Loewenthal, Mykonos, Greece, 9 July 1987