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Category: Memes

How online culture is continuing to affect the language we use every day

Symbols initially start out quite straight forward, like an arrow or a picture of a buffalo. Over time they can become more abstract, like a save disk icon or a thumbs up which require a bit more cultural background. Sometimes symbols can ascend to truly independent ideas that have taken on a life of their own.Meme culture likes to reference and self reference popular culture. A dumb button prompt in a Call of Duty game has become a stand out in internet culture. In the real world we have lots of gestures like a wave or a shrug to communicate attitudes. In the digital world memes can become the source of new ways to communicate, like the famous “F” inspired by Call of Duty.

Humans are always looking for ways to connect with the world around them and to communicate their thoughts and desires. There is no greater example of the infinite possibilities of language than the growth of “F” into a crucial and ever present member of our online expierences.

How are “frog” and “spring” related?

Proto Indo European is the grandfather or great grandfather of English (depending on how you count). This means that we can trace elements of Modern English all the way back to Proto Indo European which was spoken about 4000 BC.

Proto Indo European, like any language, had its own peculiarities. One of them was the “s-mobile” which refers to how the letter “s” sometimes just didn’t stay there in some words but did in others.

The s-mobile is indicated by a bracket around the letter s in words that have been reconstructed in Proto Indo European. We have to reconstruct them because no one wrote Proto Indo European down. We reconstruct words by looking at Modern Indo European languages like English, German, Spanish, Italian, Persian and Hindi and start finding connections between them.

English, German, Dutch, Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Icelandic and a few others are part of the Germanic group of languages. They all descend from a language linguists call Proto Germanic.

If we don’t have direct evidence that a word existed then we say the word is reconstructed and we apply a star at the beginning. If a document exists that has the word in question in it, we say the word is attested.

The word for “bull” in Proto Indo European is *(s)táwros. Here we can see the star and the brackets. We know that the s was mobile because it appears in some descendant languages but not others.

The word *(s)táwros became “steer” in English, and “Stier” in German, but in Greek, the “s” wasn’t inherited, so we get “tauros”.

So what does this all have to do with spring and frog? Well, they are actually related because they both come from a Proto Indo European word with an s-mobile in it.

One last thing we need to know about to make sense of this. When Proto Indo European developed into Proto Germanic in Scandanavia, the sound “p” became “f”. But this did not affect other descendants of Proto Indo European. So for instance, it is “father” in English but “pater” in Latin.

But here is where things get weird (if s-mobile wasn’t weird enough already!). The sound change (also called a sound shift) of “p” becoming an “f” did not affect words that had the combination “sp”.

So in the Proto Indo European word *(s)preu (which means jump), when the “s” was present, the “p” stayed and turned into the word “spring”, but when the “s” wasn’t present, the “p” became a “f” and the word developed into the word “frog”. So “spring” and “frog” are what linguists called cognate which means they descend from the same source.

And now you can tell people that the frog is named after the fact that it jumps

How are “boon”, “ban”, “prophet” and “fame” related?

“boon” meaning “blessing, benefit” come from Old Norse “bón” where it meant “prayer” or “petition”. This word ultimately comes Proto Indo European *bʰeh₂- where it meant “to say”.

“ban” comes from Proto Germanic *bannaną where it meant “curse” or “forbid” and it too came from Proto Indo European *bʰeh₂-

“fame” comes from Old French “fame” where it meant “celebrity” or “renown”. This word came from Latin fāma where it meant “talk”, “rumour” or “reputation”. This word ultimately also came from Proto Indo European *bʰeh₂-

You may be wondering how “prophet” is related? Well, it came into English from Latin prophēta. But Latin got it from Ancient Greek προφήτης ‎(prophḗtēs) where it meant “one who speak for a god”. The “phḗ” part comes from “phēmí” which means “I say”, and you guessed it, that too comes from Proto Indo European *bʰeh₂-

All of these are examples of semantic shift, which means that words change meaning over time. “boon” now means “benefit”, but it used to mean “prayer” or “petition” which is usually something spoken.

“ban” is also derived from the Proto Indo European word “to speak” because when people were banned it usually was the result of spoken commands, as you can see in the Old English version of the word. “ban” comes from Old English “bannan” where it meant “to summon” or “to proclaim”.

“prophet” is someone who speaks for a god, so the speaking connection is clear there. “fame” is quite interesting because it started out just meaning “reputation” or “rumour”. Well, as people talk about someone, there reputation can grow, and as your reputation grows, you might eventually become famous.

Word connections are all around us, and these are but a few of them

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Here are some highlights of the Silly Linguistics magazine

Translation and analysis of Iditguovssu (Dawn Light), a song in Northern Sami
Me, myself and I – An exploration of a weird phenomenon in Modern English
An overview of Northern Sami
History of “-y” in English
An exploration of the past tense of ‘yeet’
When Writing Gets Hard: The Bilingual Problem
Examine the rationale and effectiveness of attempts in the late 17th and 18th century to rectify the English language
What “yes” and “no” can tell us about how people think
How many languages are there?
Proto Language – Reconstruction and vowel Development

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