Where do words come from?

When you are very small you hear the words “dog”, “cat”, “house”, “car”, “mom”, “dad” and just assume that it has always been like that.

As you get older you encounter new words like “selfie”, “defriend”, “doxx”, “bae”, “bling” and you might initially recoil. “What the hell is going on?! Back in my day we had proper words like cat and dog, not this ‘selfie’ nonsense”. I hate to break it to you, but words are coming into the language all the time and they always have.

Even words are seemingly commonplace as “lifestyle” only started being used in the modern sense in the 60s.

Other words have been around longer though, much longer. The word “house” dates back to the language of the Germanic tribes. Linguists call this language Proto Germanic. It was spoken during the bronze age a few millenia ago. The word probably goes back even further.

But where did the word originally come from? Where did any word actually come from? Surely at some point there was no need for the word “house” so the word didn’t exist back then. As our ancestors moved out of caves and moved into the savannah or forest they would eventually have needed a word to describe the thing that provided them shelter.

The further we go back in time the harder it is to find written evidence of words. Languages unfortunately do not leave fossils so we have to make educated guesses. Some suggest it might come from a much older word “(s)kew-” which meant to cover or hide. The “s” fell away and the “k” became an h. We can see the link between “house” and “casa”.

There is a much older language than even the language of the Germanic tribes and linguists call this language Proto Indo European. It is called this because the languages descended from it are spread all over Europe, the Middle East and even parts of India.

The people who spoke this language were called the Indo Europeans and it is generally believed they lived in the Pontic Steppes somewhere in the region of modern day Ukraine. Some of the Indo Europeans moved north and crossed the Baltic Sea, settling in Scandanavia. They would become the Germanic peoples.

Other Indo Europeans moved south and west and ended up in the Italian peninsula. Some of these people would go on to found Rome and spread Latin to large numbers of people all over Europe. In the languages of the Italian peninsula, and in other languages descended from the language of the Indo Europeans, the “k” sound never changed, so we have “casa” in modern Spanish.

The real answer to the question of where words come from is that they come from every place imaginable. The simple every day word “cat” could have come from a Nubian word “kaddîska”, an Arabic word qitta, or even a Northern Sami word gađfe which means a female short tailed weasel. If the Northern Sami etymology is true then it is just another example of semantic shift which means that the word changed meaning over time because of associations.

Semantic shift is a very common way for words to emerge. The English word “hound” is cognate (shares a common ancestor with) German “Hund”. In the 1300s in England the word “hound” was used as the general word for dogs. The word “dog” at the time referred to a specific kind of dog. One theory is that this type of dog was so common that when people talked about what type of dog they had, the word “dog” came up most of the time.

The word eventually became linked with the overall class and stopped meaning a specific type of dog. In an ironic twist, the word “hound” now means a type of dog, so “hound” and “dog” have completely switched meanings.

Another interesting semantic shift is the word “gay”. It started out in Proto Germanic as ganhuz meaning sudden. It came to mean “impetuous” in the language of the Goths, and eventually ended up in Old Occitan as “gai” meaning “lively”. The meaning shifted again later and ended up in French meaning “joyful, merry”. Stereotypes about homosexual people led to people using the word “gay” to describe them. Over time the meaning of “homosexual” came to dominate the use of the word and now the meaning of “lively” is long forgotten.

The word might be in the process of shifting again. Due to societal opinions about homosexuality, it picked up a negative sense and young people started using the word “gay” to mean anything bad. Amongst these people the word is not used to mean “homosexual” at all and is used to describe all sorts of things that have nothing to do with sexuality. If you asked the people who use it in this sense what the word means they might genuinely reply that it just means bad and to them there is no association to homosexuality at all.

Societal forces can produce a lot of new words and a lot of new meanings to words. Semantic shift can often be so complete that the original meaning is lost entirely. The “ejaculate” used to mean “to say suddenly” and it began to be used to refer to the male orgasm. Now that meaning dominates the sense of the word and its original meaning is all but forgotten.

Sex is an area of the human experience that has produced tons and tons of new expressions. Did you know that “intercourse” was once a perfectly normal word you could use at a fancy dinner party?

Just look at this quote from a Jane Austen novel

“They had no conversation together, no intercourse but what the commonest civility required”

Wow! Society really was different back then!

Actually, the word back then just meant “conversation”. It comes from Latin “intercursus” which meant “mingled with”. Its current meaning comes from a euphemism. Sex was sometimes called “sexual intercourse” as it was the mingling and connection between two people during sex. This euphemism was probably super useful and over time the “sexual” part was dropped and now there is only one association people have when they hear the word “intercourse”.

Some words come about just because of the sound of them. The word “poo” came out probably because that is the sound someone might make when they encounter something horrible.

All words have associations. Just think about the word “justice”. It conjures in your mind such things as stability, things in their right place, order, equality and equity. These are the things we associate with the practise of law and justice. We want to live in a stable society, for things to be in the right place, for things to be fair. It comes ultimately from Latin iūs which meant a law, right or duty.

Duty in itself does not mean equality or order. It is just something that needs to be done. But when you tie that up into a system of hearing disputes, the innate human desire for things to be handled correctly and for bad people to be punished and good people to be saved from bad people, this new word can start gathering all sorts of now associations.

These new associations can create new possibilities. The word is the root of the trees and its associations are the branches and leaves. A particular association might bud as an acorn, drop to the ground and create something completely new. So now we have the word “justification” which is an explanation for why something is “just”. Without the word “justice” and “just” the word “justification” never would have sprouted.

Its common in English nowadays to just talk of emailing someone. The word “email” started as a shortening of “electronic mail” but it has since taken on a life of its own. People don’t think “I will electronically mail you something this evening”. That concept is contained in the word “email”.

What new concepts, inventions and ideas will require new words or new associations to words in the common decades?

Before Facebook you could “befriend” someone, but people would never talk about “friending” someone. Or “defriending” for that matter. As the human experience changes, all the languages of the world find ways to express the new world they find themselves in. It is one of the things that makes writing about language so fun.

Thanks for reading 🙂

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There story of “us” in the Germanic languages

There story of “us” in the Germanic languages

There is a change that happened in some West Germanic languages that has obscured the relation between a whole set of words. I would like to explore that change and reveal a connection you might not know about.

All modern Germanic languages (English being one of them) are descended from a language spoken by the Germanic tribes in the Bronze Age. Linguists call this language Proto Germanic. They were spread out across southern Sweden, Denmark and southern Norway. Over time they migrated south into central Europe. Some went east and their language changed over time eventually becoming Gothic.

Those that stayed in central Europe became Germans, Austrians, Swiss, Dutch and Belgians. Some of the Germanic tribes left central Europe for the British isles and they were the ancestors of the English. Those that stayed in Scandanavia eventually became the Swedes, Danes, Norwegians, Icelanders and Faroe islanders.

As the Germanic peoples spread out they took their Germanic language with them and it changes bit by bit over time. Linguistics groups the Germanic languages into three major branches: West Germanic of central Europe and the British isles, East Germanic of eastern Europe and North Germanic of northern Europe, Iceland and the Faroe Islands.

People learn language on their mother’s knees and from their peers. They pick it up around them. They eventually settle on some kind of baseline which they use to communicate with others. They probably hear variations and just get used to range of expression of their language.

What this means is that people often don’t notice changes happening under their noses. People speak how they speak and generally everyone gets along just fine. Maybe someone will make a joke about how “people over there” speak or something like that and life goes on. Those little differences can grow over time and make what were once mutually intelligible (which means both sides can understand each other) forms of speech eventually utterly different and totally non understandable to people from other groups.

English is one of the more divergent Germanic languages thanks to being separated by a sea from the mainland (which makes migration more difficult and slows down the spread of new forms of speech) and due to the fact that after the Germanic tribes arrived in Britain they were then invaded again by Vikings who by then spoke a bit differently from the tribes who originally moved over to Britain and by the Normans who spoke a different language entirely. Some of the changes in English did happen in other Germanic languages and we can still find those connections today.

Think about the letters “t” and “p”. “t” is pronounced at the front of the mouth just behind the teeth. “p” is pronounced by putting your lips together opening them suddenly along with a breath of air. All sounds are made with the mouth. But there are some sounds that include another part of your body which allows you to change the sound slightly. The nose and its air pathways are connected to the mouth and the pathways can be opened or closed to change the sound.

Pronounce the word “think” and stop just before you get to “k”. Listen to the sound you make. That is a nasal sound. You create vibrations with your voice box and then push that sound through your nose forming the “n” sound we hear in “think”. There is another nasal sound in English which is the sound at the end of “thin”. It is slightly different to the “n” sound in “think”. The sound in “think” is the same as the “ng” in “sing”.

In the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) it is given the symbol “ŋ” and is called a velar nasal. Velar means the back part of the tongue is raised up against the soft palate also known as the velum. The “nasal” part of the name means that sound is passed through the nose.

The “n” in “thin” is not a velar nasal, but actually an alveolar nasal because it is produced in the alveolar ridge which is the part of the mouth just behind the teeth. As you can see, the “n” is not so much a distinct sound, but merely a way to indicate what word is being pronounced and people just know that “think” is pronounced with a velar nasal (the “ng” sound) and not the “plain n” sound. Pronouncing it as “thin” then a “k” sounds completely wrong.

Ok, now that we know about the different Germanic languages and how they developed, and we know about nasal sounds, we can look at the matter at hand.

Let’s look at the words “tooth” and the word “tand” (from Swedish). They both mean the same thing. But you will notice an “n” in the Swedish word but no “n” in the English word. How did the English lose the “n”? They lost them through a process called “nasalisation”. This is where a vowel is pronounced through the nose and mouth instead of just the mouth.

Modern English doesn’t have nasalisation so the easiest way to explain it is to imagine looking at a cake. You might say “mmmmm”. Put your finger under your nose and feel the gentle flow of air as you make that sound. Think back to the “n” in “think”. Notice how air goes through your nose. Now imagine pronouncing a vowel while pushing air through your nose like you do with “mmm” and “think”.

This is what happens with French “cinq”. You pronounce the vowel as you would any vowel, but you pass air through your nose which changes the sound. When you pass air through your nose while pronouncing a vowel, we say that you pronounce that vowel with nasalisation.

So, long ago, some group of Germanic speakers started nasalising the vowel before an “n”. So /uns/ become /ũːs/ (the slashes represent International Phonetic Alphabet notation, the tilde on the vowel represent nasalisation and the colon after the “u” represent a long vowel). The vowel got lengthened so that it took the same amount of time to say as the previous /un/ and it was nasalised.

Why was the vowel nasalised? Well, people often started speaking in a way that is easier for them. Think about the word “bottle”. If you live in USA, you probably actually say “boddle” without realising this. This is because “boddle” is a bit easier to say than “bottle”. So sounds change in a way that makes speech more fluent and words easier to say.

/uns/ has three sounds in it: /u/ (which is pronounced like a longer version of the “oo” in “good”, /n/ (which is pronounced like the “n” in “net”) and /s/ (which is pronounced like the “s” in “sit). Pronounce /uns/ slowly for yourself and notice how your tongue moves around your mouth as you pronounce it. It has to be in one position for /u/ then another for /n/ and then another for /s/.

Since we are already using our nose for /n/, why don’t we just combine the nose sound with the vowel and drop the “n” because it’s not needed anymore as we have found a way to include the /u/, a nasal sound and the /s/ in only two sounds instead of three. A massive saving of time and effort! Speakers are always looking for easier ways to pronounce things. Minimising effort is one of the many ways languages change over time. So our final sound is /ũːs/ (which is a nasal vowel plus “s”.

The final piece to the puzzle is that groups of speakers are separated and changes don’t spread to all speakers. So once /uns/ became /ũːs/ and people got used to it, they just decided to stop nasalising it altogether because that was even easier and since everyone understood what /us/ means it just stuck. The word just slowly changed from one form to the next to the next and no one really noticed or cared, they just went along with it. /us/ (without the nasalisation) is two steps removed from /uns/ (no nasalisation and no /n/) which means it is slowly drifting away from the original word.

If this word went through more changes it could eventually become completely unrecognisable. But as long as the speakers of the language were speaking amongst themselves they could all keep up to date with the changes and still understand each other. So over time the language would diverge from its cousins but each group could still understand their peers even if they couldn’t understand their cousins.

The subgroup of Germanic languages that applied this nasalisation are called the North Sea Germanic group (or Ingvaeonic). The North Sea Germanic group includes English, Scots, Frisian and Low German (also called Low Saxon). The oldest varities of those languages are Old English (which is also the ancestor of Scots), Old Frisian and Old Saxon.

In the original language of the Germanic tribes “tooth” was “tanþs” (with þ representing a “th” sound). The “th” became a “d” in the other Germanic languages but English retained it. So “tooth” and “tand” are actually descended from the same word and in linguistics we say those two words are cognate (from Latin “cognatus” which means “born together”).

We can look at words in English and compare them with words in German and you can see an “n” in German where there is no “n” in English

English “us”, German “uns”
English “tooth”, German “Zahn”
English “other”, German “ander”
English “goose”, German “Gans”
English “five”, German “fünf”
English “soft”, German “sanft”

Languages like to mix though and we can see words in languages outside of the North Sea Germanic group that have lost the “n” even though they weren’t part of this nasalisation process.

The Proto Germanic word for “south” was “sunþraz”. This became “sūþ” in Old English and “sundar” in Old High German. Middle Low German (descended from Old Saxon, a North Sea Germanic language) spoken by the Hanseative League was very influential at the time and their word for “south”, which was “sūden” eventually supplanted the Old High German form.

One of the ways to work out if a word has been borrowed is to look at the form of the word. If the word has an “n” where its cognates in the North Sea Germanic languages don’t have one, then it probably isn’t borrowed. If it lacks an “n” like its cognates in the North Sea Germanic languages, but other Germanic languages have an “n”, then it probably is a borrowing from a North Sea Germanic language.

All modern Germanic languages use a form of the word “south” without an “n” but you can still see the “n” in some place names like Zonderwijk in the Netherlands. Here “Zonder” is an older form of the word “Zuid” which means “south”.

Languages change over time. Sometimes a lot, sometimes a little. A change in one language might be borrowed into a related language and the two might remain quite similar. Other times a group of languages, like the North Sea Germanic languages might employ one change and run with it.

The loss of “n” before a consonant was so complete in English that the only examples of “n” followed by another consonant are because the words had a different form at the time and only lost a vowel or consonant at a later point bringing it to its current form (like the word “month” which was originally “monaþ”).

I love learning about things like this because it makes me feel more connected to my native language and I realise that English is not as far removed from its brethren as it first appears.

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