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Development of “two” in Indo European languages

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If you like this, you will love the Silly Linguistics magazine which is full of fun and interesting language stuff.

Sign up for a complete subscription and get instant access to the current issue and all previously published issues. We currently have 21 issues and a new issue comes out every month. Each issue includes tons of fun and interesting articles from the world of language. You also get access to language lessons and a bonus supplement called Language Lovers Loot which includes language learning tips, a word tree to show how a group of words is related, a linguistic overview of a language spoken in the world and Linguistics 101, a user friendly and accessible introduction to linguistics.

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Here are some of the kind of articles you will find in the magazine

Love or Lust Online: Decoding the Complicated Language of Online Dating

By Catherine Muxworthy

Even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, online dating and apps were already popular, particularly with younger generations, for a variety of functions from finding friends on Bumble to dating, relationships or hook-ups. With everyone shut away safely in the homes under lockdown thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, however, these apps have likely seen a rise in users due to the inability to meet people IRL (in real life).

If you’ve found yourself in the murky and complicated waters of online dating and apps, then this exploration of the language within the apps and surrounding them might be useful to you.


Like being ‘benched’ or put on the substitutions bench in football, benching in the online dating world refers to keeping someone around to keep you options open. For example, someone might be benching if they’re still messaging you to keep you interested because they’re not sure yet whether you’re the right dating material of them, whilst also keeping their options open and exploring other people online.


Many people may know this term from the popular MTV show, Catfish, co-hosted by Nev Schulman and Kamie Crawford (Max Joseph in the first seven seasons). Catfishing occurs when a person you are messaging is pretending to be someone they’re not, this more be for financial gain but not always. Catfishers may use fake photos of models or steal photos from someone else, giving them a different name. Signs you may be being catfished include; the person never wanting to or always finding excuses not to video chat or meet in person, asking for money, or even appearing to be a celebrity.

In the MTV series, the hosts work with possible victims to find out who is really behind the messages.The term catfishing reportedly comes from an old tale told about fisherman shipping catfish with codfish because they would keep the codfish alert, active and, therefore, tasting better. This story was orginally a Christian parable first recorded in the early 1900s, however, the 2010 documentary Catfish of which Nev Shulman was the subject (which then inspired the MTV series) popularised the use of catfish as a metaphor for someone who seduces or tricks another with a fake profile, keeping the seduced person ‘on their toes’, much like a catfish swimming with a codfish.

Cuffing Season:The cold, lonely, dark and often depressing winter months are often referred to as cuffing season in the dating world because early autumn to late winter is often a time when people may want to find a relationship so they have someone to snuggle up with inside in the warm. The term cuffing refers to the idea of metaphorically ‘handcuffing’ yourself to someone for the short winter period before becoming free again in the Spring.

ENM/Ethical Non-Monogamy:

ENM which stands for Ethical Non-Monogamy is when the person in question is in a relationship already but both parties of the relationship have agreed to open it up and are allowed to date, have a relationship with and/or sleep with other people. ENM may also be written as CNM which stands for consensual non-monogamy.


This term is, of course, inspired by Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s hit TV series Fleabag. It refers to the idea of dating people who are a bad fit for you, much like the main character of Fleabag (played by Waller-Bridge). For example, in season two when Fleabag falls in love with the ‘hot priest’. Match dating expert Hayley Quinn told Cosmopolitan that this trend is self-inflicted, explaining that “someone ghosts you, whereas you fleabag yourself.”


This term is the opposite of cuffing season and refers to someone who is only interested in relationships during the sunny, hot summer months.


If someone has been messaging or dating you and then they suddenly disappear, sorry, you’ve probably just been ghosted. If someone is ghosting you, they will no longer reply to messages or answer you calls and they may disappear completely from the apps. A similar term, Caspering has also been offered in the language of online dating. Much like the fictional, friendly ghost, someone caspering will be more polite than simple ghosting. They will offer an explanation before they disappear. The New York Post explained: “Essentially, this is just a breakup done with basic human courtesy, but has become so rare it now requires a name.”


Haunting may also be referred to as orbiting or zombie-ing, and it usually happens after you’ve been ghosted. The person will have disappeared from your life but they suddenly they will appear on your social media, with a like of a picture on Facebook or watching your story on Instagram. As the name suggests, it is like the person is back from the dead to haunt you, letting you know they’re watching you from afar but not getting back in touch to fully be part of your life again.

White Clawing:

White Clawing in the trend of dating someone specially for the attractive appearance rather than any other aspect of their personality. Previously known as being ‘arm candy’, white clawing takes its name from the popular hard seltzer drink, White Claw, drinkers of which are often mocked for choosing something that is satisfying yet bland.

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An interesting etymology for you

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The history of “-y” in English

When I first learned that English was a Germanic language, I didn’t really know what that meant. English and German seemed nothing alike to me. I wanted to know what it meant to be a Germanic language. English’s history is quite colourful with many of characters and lots of plot developments.

The reason Modern English is so different to Modern German is because languages change over time. People learn a language from those around them. If people can move around they bring their language with them and their speech patterns can affect the speech patterns of people elsewhere. English and German share a common ancestor, but since there is a sea between England and Germany any changes that happened in English or German over time were much less likely to affect the other.

The earliest Germanic peoples were those who had migrated to Scandanavia a few thousand years ago. They then migrated south into central Europe. Over time many Germanic tribes sprung up. Some of these tribes, namely the Angles, Saxons and the Jutes migrated across the English Channel to Britain. Some of the Saxons remained in continental Europe. There are three states in Germany named after them: Saxony, Lower Saxony and Saxony-Anhalt.

As these tribes started settling in southern Britain in the 400s their languages started mixing together. This is the start of the Old English period (also known as Anglo-Saxon). This period lasted until the invasion of Britain by William the Conqueror in 1066. Old English was much more similar to even some of the modern Germanic languages than Modern English is.

It was a highly inflected language with 4 cases and had grammatical gender with 3 genders. After the invasion of Britain by William the Conqueror French was imposed and it took another two or three centuries for English to start being used in the halls of power again. English though demoted, lived on amongst the people of England after the invasion.

Eventually conflict with France caused the people of England to use English more and more until French was no longer the main language used by those in power.

During this time English adopted many words from French and that is part of the reason German looks so different to English speakers. A lot of the concepts English speakers discuss are conveyed using words from French, whereas German would probably use a word descended from the ancestral language of the Germanic tribes.

But all is not lost! English is still a fundamentally Germanic language, even if it looks different. Modern English doesn’t have the same grammatical complexity in terms of cases or grammatical gender, but it still uses similar syntax and much of the core vocabulary (words used every day) is descended from the language of the Germanic tribes.

We can find links to the other Germanic languages everywhere if you know where to look.

Over time the way people spoke German changed. When sounds change in a systematic way, linguists call this a sound shift. The word “give” is a good example.

Here it is in a few Germanic languages
English: give
Dutch: geven
Swedish: ger (which comes from the older form “giva”)
German: geben

You can see that the vowels might be a bit different, but they are all written with a “g” at the beginning, and have a “v” after the vowel. All of them do this, except for German.

Linguists call the sound shift that caused this the “High German consonant shift”

If you see a “b”, then you might see a “v” in the English word. Here is another example

English: love
German: Liebe

What does this have to do with “-y”?

Well, you need to understand the concept of sound shift to understand how English ended up with this little letter at the end of so many words. Old English did not experience some of the sound shifts that affected other Germanic languages. “th” becoming “d” is a very common sound shift that happened in the other Germanic languages that didn’t happen in English probably because the English channel made it more difficult for people to get to England so the new speech pattern would not have been heard as much and as much wasn’t copied so “th” remained “th” in English. Same with the “w” sound becoming a “v” sound in the other Germanic languages

But English did change the “g” sound. In Old English, “g” was pronounced like Modern English “y”. Old English “tō dæġe” sounds relatively close to Modern English “today” because the “g” sound was already a “y” sound.

When “ig” appeared at the end of words in Old English, it sounded like Modern English “ee”. Look at Modern German sonnig and just pronounce the “g” as a “y” and that is probably close to what the Old English would have been.

Here is the word in some of the other Germanic languages

English: sunny
Dutch: zonnig
German: sonnig

In Modern English we can put “y” at the end of almost anything and get an adjective, such as fishy, smelly, thirsty, cloudy. This “y” ending is descended from the “ig” ending in Old English.

There is another ending in Modern English that went through a simple reduction. “-ly” in Modern English is also descended from an Old English ending. In this case it is descended from “-līċe,” which comes from Old English word meaning body. In the form “lich” it still survives as a type of undead being.

Over time people dropped the “ċe” part (which is pronounced like Modern English “ch” with the “e” letter at the end representing an “uh” sound) and just said “-ly” instead of “-līċe”. This ending is still very common in Modern English and it is directly related to the “-lich” in German, “-lijk” in Dutch and “-lig” in Swedish.

Here is the word “daily” and its cognates (words descended from a common source) in the other Germanic languages

English: daily
Dutch: dagelijks
German: täglich
Swedish: daglig

This is just one of the many connections English has to its Germanic cousins. So English might not look like the other Germanic languages, but it is just a Germanic language wearing a jacket from a Romance language. It is still fundamentally a Germanic language and still has a lot in common with them.

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English “ch”

The sound “ch” in English has an interesting history. Original the sound was a “k” in Proto Germanic. The sound became palatilised in some words, which means that the sound is pronounced with tongue raised against the hard palate. This can often happen so a series of sounds are easier to say, such as “did you” becoming “di’jew”. In IPA this would be [dɪdjuː] becoming [dɪdʒuː]

A star indicates that the word is reconstructed. Linguists look at the oldest literature in Germanic languages and find connections between the languages. They can then theorise as to what the word was in the parent language.

Here are some Modern English words and the words they came from

beseech: Old English be + sēċan, Proto Germanic *sōkijaną
church: Old English ċiriċe, Proto Germanic *kirikǭ
latch: Old English læċċan, Proto Germanic *lakkijaną
much: Old English miċel, Proto Germanic *mikilaz
watch: Old English wæċċan, Proto Germanic *wakjaną

The “k” sound did not palatilise in other Germanic languages and remained a “k”, or palatilised at different times and changed into other sounds.

These are cognates, not translations. This means that the words listed here come from the same word in Proto Germanic. Cognates can often have different meanings

English German Dutch Swedish
beseech besuchen bezoeken besöka
church Kirche kerk kyrka
much michel mekel mycket
watch wachen waken väcka

English is one of the more divergent Germanic languages. It has very different pronunciations than the other Germanic languages and some of the divergence already happened in Old English. English was weird even back then

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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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How did language first evolve?

It is a question that has intrigued us for as long as humanity has been around. Some ancient myths talk about gods bestowing the gift of words upon us. We are fascinated by this very complex thing that we do pretty much effortlessly. It is so effortless for us that we often don’t even realise how amazing it is. I think we, as humans, are always asking questions and trying to understand our world, and language is an essential part of the human experience.

People often wonder what it would be like to have telepathy. Well, no need to wonder. We have it already. We can communicate complex ideas just by making sounds, or as I am doing now, writing them down using a system designed for capturing spoken word on the page. It is no surprise to me that our ancestors must have come up with all sorts of explanations for how it must have come about.

But did it really just pop up out of nowhere? No, that doesn’t seem likely. As much as humanity might have a lofty opinion of its own place in the world, we are just as subject to the forces of nature as any other species. There must be an evolutionary reason for how languages ended up developing. I was watching a video about birds and how they evolved. Every living thing alive evolved from an older form. But looking at modern birds, you realise that if they evolved from older forms then that means that one of those older forms didn’t have wings. They didn’t just pop up out of nowhere already having wings. Evolution is a slow process that takes countless generations to end up at the situation we have today.

What is the point of half a wing, this video asked? Why did wings evolve in the first place? What is the use of a few feathers sticking out of your limbs if you can’t fly? Well, it didn’t start out with flying. Early birds used those little feathers to climb up to places that would have been impossible or very difficult to get to otherwise. They used their clawed legs, and their small feathers together to get to safe spots up trees and away from predators.

This would have been a massive evolutionary advantage. Evolution works through small changes that happen randomly in certain individuals of a species. Those changes that provide an advantage in life are often passed on to future generations. The individuals with bigger feathers and more feathers would have had an advantage and that propelled those feathered individuals forward until their descendants eventually had enough feathers and big enough feathers to allow them to fly.

Now, what does this have to do with language? Well, it shows that evolution can take us, looking back, to unanticipated places, and the development of language is once such occurrence. Those first feathered dinosaurs couldn’t fly, but they could climb trees well, and that would eventually lead to the emergence of such species as eagles, who lead quite different lives to their dinosaur ancestors.

Like flight, language didn’t pop up out of nowhere. And it didn’t emerge fully formed. But then, like in the flight example, what is the use of half a word? Language developed by building on what had come before. Complex language seems to be unique to us, but that doesn’t mean that other species can’t communicate. Dogs bark, yelp and whine. Cats meow, growl and purr. These are all examples of communication.

Our earliest ancestors probably evolved language by taking already existing biological tools like the throat and tongue and using them for another purpose. We know that parrots can mimic language quite well. Humans are not the only ones who can make complex sounds with their own mouths and throats. Birds can make all sorts of sounds and even what could be called music. While parrots may be able to mimic language, their ability with it, even when taught over a number of years is minimal in comparison to even a 3 year old child. So the ability to make sounds was an important part, but it was not the only thing required. The ability to create a wide range of sounds was merely the first step along the long road to language.

We don’t have all the answers yet, but we can make some good guesses. In the beginning it was probably quite rudimentary, but as it became a useful tool, like feathers on a dinosaur, it probably became more complex. Before language could have arisen, there are 3 absolutely essential things that were required.

The ability to create a wide range of sounds (only being able to make a “b” sound would probably not be that useful), a social group so you had other members of your species to talk to, and finally, the cognitive abilities to realise that those sounds that your fellow humans were making actually meant something. Babies pick up language almost effortlessly and it really is a marvel at how good they are at doing it. We all pick up our first language just by sitting around other people and listening.

Our ancestors were probably not as good at picking up language, but they probably were able to work out that when a member of their group made one sound it meant something, and another sound it meant something else. All species seem to communicate in one way or another. Many supplement this communication with sound. Wolves, for instance, might howl and other wolves might pick up the howl and howl in return. They are clearly recognising the sound and responding to it.

Dogs too respond to sounds made by other dogs and by us. They can be taught to recognise certain words, which to them are probably just another sound. If wolves and dogs do this, then certainly our ancient ancestors did too. As human cognitive abilities grew, and as our bodies changed over time, two things probably happened: we were able to make more types of sounds than we could before, and we were also able to recognise those sounds in other humans.

Humans seem to want to make themselves stand out and push themselves away from the brutish and chaotic lives of the animals of this world. “We are special. We are clever. We created language solely through our amazing intellect,” some would say. Language was probably neither a solely intellectual creation, nor was it just random. It probably emerged when all the pieces of the puzzle came together.

Initially language was probably little more than sounds, but the sounds humans could make were used to make the first words. Maybe the first words were something like “ma”, “tu”, “ak” and so on. But when people started using those sounds in specific situations, they would have gained a certain association and meaning with the other people around them. Even if all they could do was say things like “move”, “danger” or “deer”, it still would have been a very useful thing and it would have been very evolutionary advantageous for anyone who had the right genes to continue on the language journey.

Whatever the genes that we need to produce and understand language are, they were obviously evolutionarily speaking extremely useful and they spread throughout the human population. We have yet to find a single languageless society in the world. All humans are able to use language, no matter the location on Earth, culture or education level. It seems to be rooted in our very DNA. It might be the very thing that allowed us to eventually conquer every part of this amazing world we live on.

Where language went to once it had arrived is a story for another day, but its emergence started a whole new chapter in the story of humanity.

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How do you learn languages and how can you get better at learning languages?

It may come as a bit of a shock, but I used to be terrible at languages. I couldn’t learn them very well at all and I spent all my time on the computer or playing video games.

Humans have been learning languages throughout human history. It’s a very common activity and humans are actually pretty good at it. Why do you find learning languages so difficult? Because you are probably going about it the wrong way.

Speaking a language is a skill but it’s unlike any other skill you have learned. When the scientific method was developed, humanity had a way to systematically investigate something and report back on their findings. So, why don’t we just make a list of all the possible endings and there we go, language learned.

You may have had years of lessons in this language or that languages but can’t say much more than “I am eating lunch” or “Where is the train station?”. I think the failing in current language learning methods is due partially to the analytic method used to teach them.

People don’t use the scientific method when learning languages. You certainly didn’t when you learned your native language. You learned it by exposure. Everyone learned their native language by exposure. Why can’t you just do that again? Because you are a different person now than you were when you were 5.

Children are naturally curious and adventurous. They take in the world around them. You can say “Do you want an orange?” and they will answer even if they have never heard the word “orange” before. But by the time you become an adult, if you heard a sentence in a foreign language you might think to yourself “Was that the second person conjugation? What case was that?”

That’s your analytic brain at work. It’s an incredibly powerful tool and it’s what helped you learn your native language but it can get in the way. Humans like certainty and hate being confused or lost. Everyone has the capacity to learn languages. The thing between your ears is not the issue here. It’s you. It’s your attitudes and state of mind. Wait, don’t run away. I’m not judging you.

It’s just how things go. We pick up habits. After that blissful, carefree childhood we grow up and we get a bit more cautious. We look at a foreign language and say “Wow, that is so different to my native language. How will I ever learn it”. You might have already realised this, but all languages are weird. All languages have strange exceptions and some or many nonsensical rules or weird extra bits.

But something else that is true about languages is that every language is learnable by humans before they were made by humans. Languages developed many many tens of thousands of years ago and they have been shifting, changing and adapting to the world around them ever since.

I think to change how we learn languages, we need to change how we look at them. I used to be a programmer before falling in love with languages. Programming requires you to write code. Code is basically a story you tell the computer about what you want it to do. Computers are literally to the nth degree so you better make sure you tell that story properly.

What does this have to do with languages? Well, the code is written with a programming language. A programming language is a subset of word and symbols that you are permitted to use in the writing of the story. If you stray outside of that toolset, the computer gives you an error message.

Spoken languages are like this too. I can say “The dog bit the man” but if I say “483849dkgfpej” it doesn’t mean anything because I am not following the rules of English grammar and I am not using English vocabulary. So if we analyse English (or German, Swahili) we can understand how it works? Yes, you can.

But, and this was the breakthrough I had, you don’t actually need to know how something works to be able to use it. Do you know how the human brain works, or how muscles work, or how the immune system works? Even if you did, they would still just go on working.

Analysing language is interesting in its own right but is not the most effective way to learn languages. The most effective way to learn languages is the same way you learned your native language, which is by exposure.

Your brain is ready and waiting to find patterns and connections between words and meaning and you are just looking at a list of words. Show it some actual sentences and it will start churning away at them.

Here’s an example

A man stands near a sign that says “If you push this button, you will get a zap. The zap will hurt. Don’t press the button”. The man, ignoring the sign, pushes the button and the sign being true to its word zaps the man who emits and “ow”. Another man standing near by shakes his head and says “What a trandle!”

Having read this story, what does the word “trandle” mean? Are you a bit uneasy giving a definition to a word you have never seen before. You might not realise it now but you are doing this all the time. When last has someone told you “That word actually means this” and you are like “I thought it meant that”. Where did you get the idea of the words meaning?

Humans are social creatures. They like to form consensus with those arounnd them. If someone consistently uses a word in a certain context then you associate that word with that context.

This is why euphemisms wear out over time. “toilet” comes from a French word meaning “small cloth”. It began to be used to refer to that room in the house where you take care of business by powdering your nose, looking at yourself in the mirror and using the facilities. Were people really fool when you said you were going to the “small cloth” room? Evidently not. Now the word “toilet” just means that thing where people poop. The associations stuck to it like glue and no amount of small cloths are going to change that.

I made the word “trandle” up. It’s not a word anyone uses. But if people were to use it consistently in that scenario I played out it would become synonymous with “fool” or “idiot” because that is the idea associated with that scenario.

So what does this have to do with language learning?

It means you already are great at learning languages. Your brain is not only keen but also willing to find connections out there and try to get a handle on the world outside your own brain. What we need to do now is set you up properly to maximise that learning effect.

Just throwing a bunch of words at you is not going to work because there is no context. Words on a page are just symbols. They have no life of their own. Even spoken words are just sounds. They come alive when they are used in a sentence and they link to ideas in humanity’s shared experience.

If you have been following the page for a while you will see that I have been experimenting with some Irish teaching material.

Here is one of them

I am a man – Is fear mé
I am a woman – Is bean mé
I am a boy – Is buachaill mé
I am a girl – Is cailín mé

Do you see the pattern? “is” followed by a noun and then “mé”. As people speak languages they change slightly so that over generations eventually the language would become unrecognisable to someone from generations back. This is because how people pronounce things change but also because associations change over time.

English, Irish, Welsh and a whole bunch of other European languages descend from a language linguists call Proto-Indo-European. A word in Proto-Indo-European changed over centuries and millenium, being passed from father to son until you reach modern day. That word is “is”. The exact same word was passed down from father to son, but within a group of Indo Europeans that migrated to Ireland.

Eventually the language they spoke there evolved in its own direction and eventually became Modern Irish. The word for “is” in Modern Irish is “is”. Sometimes languages change less in some places than in other.

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What is the Japanese word for sushi?

This question, though at first absurd, can be a great jumping off point for a discussion about language. When does a word become a part of a language? And what is a language anyway? If you went up to someone who didn’t speak Hungarian and said something in Hungarian they wouldn’t understand you. So we can say that your language and Hungarian are different enough that they can be grouped separately. But if you just said the word “sushi” to an English speaker, while not a sentence, it would put the idea of sushi in their mind. Does this make sushi an English word? Could we group English and Japanese together because they share a word for something?

Of course, no one is suggesting English and Japanese are the same language. Both languages are clearly very different. You are probably picturing English and Japanese in your mind and that picture probably has writing on it. Writing though is just a tool and outside of the page and in the real world things get a bit more messy.

So, what is the criteria for saying a word is a part of the language? Does it need to invoke an idea in the receiver’s mind? Ok, well “sushi” clearly fulfills that criteria. But it’s also very clearly a borrowing from Japanese and the pronunciation has only been changed very slightly. Does its clear foreign origin give it away? Would someone reading a menu, coming across the word sushi, jump back in surprise and say “Why are there Japanese words on this menu?” Probably not. They probably just look at the word and understand what it’s refering to.

Sometimes when someone asks a linguist a question they get the answer: “It depends”. Whether a word is considered a part of the language or not depends on a lot of things. It could be considered a “true” member of the new language or it could sit on the outside and only be used when a speaker needs to refer to things that they don’t normally refer to.

There are many examples of words with very specific meanings that were borrowed because they served a purpose. When your language doesn’t have a word for something, people often just borrow the word from the people who do have a word for it. An example is the word “raccoon” which was borrowed from the Powhatan language that was spoken in Virginia. Initially it would probably have seemed like a foreign word. It would have seemed as strange as the new creatures Europeans encountered in the new world.

As Europeans and their descendants spent more time in America, the word and the animal it referred to would have seemed more normal. Now when a character like Rocket Raccoon appears in a movie, no one says to themselves “Why did they name the character using a word from a Native American language?”. “raccoon” is simply what the animal is called in English. It has since become a word in English. How long a word has been in English has a big effect on what native English speakers think is an English word. Words have all sorts of origins, whether it is from older forms of English or from the multitude of languages spoken in the world.

You might be thinking “It’s a word if it’s in the dictionary” but dictionaries are a modern invention. Do words exist simply because they appear in the dictionary? A lot of modern dictionaries are descriptive, which means they try to show the language as it is used by people rather than be a place to tell people how they think the language should be.

We can actually go further than just “it depends”. We can say that a word becomes a member of a language once it has settled in and has been accepted by the speakers of a language. But we can actually zoom out and look at things a different way. Let’s imagine a time before books, computers or writing. Let’s imagine a tribal people getting by somewhere in the world. Someone goes hunting and they come across a strange animal. He runs home and says “I saw a creature and he was scratching in the dirt with his hands”.

Later on, when someone wants to say that they also saw a creature like that, they might say “I saw one of those scratching-in-the-dirt animals”. Someone might ask what a “scratching-in-the-dirt” animal is and they would say “It’s got black fur around its eyes, with a larger circle of white fur, but it’s mostly grey” and then the person would connect “scratching-in-the-dirt” with this new animal which you can guess now is actually a raccoon. I used this example because that is actually how the raccoon got its name. The word “raccoon” comes from the phrase “ärähkuněm” in the Powhatan language which means “he scratches with his hands”.

The speakers of this language would at first just think of “ärähkuněm” as a phrase but over time it would be shortened and eventually just turn into a noun. This happens all the time in language. Just look at the phrase “goodbye” which comes from the phrase “God be with ye”. Over time things that are useful settle down into a particular usage and stick like that. But what’s the broader view that I was talking about? Well, let’s think about “ärähkuněm” again. Would speakers of that language think of it as a word? Would they think about spelling or the word on the page? They would probably just think of it as a series of sounds, i.e. “ä” then “r” then “ä” and so on.

They grow up hearing people speak to them, they learn words and grammatical endings and various other things and they use what they have learned to speak to people around them. Anything that their community uses when speaking to one another they would probably just accept as part of their common speech or language. Let’s say visitors from afar come visiting. Maybe these visitors are from Europe. Their speech would sound strange to them and completely unintelligible. Whatever it is they are speaking, it would be very different to their own language. In their own village they would understand what people meant when people used the word for fruit, or animal, or parent, or mother of father and so on. That’s their language. They have an intuition and feeling about what makes their language their language.

If you could take all the words they know and put it into a box, you would have a box full of words. You could say that that box is for all intents and purposes their language. They would understand any word in that box and would accept any word in that box as one of their own.

What if you showed them something they had never seen before? They would probably use words they already know to describe the new object. What if someone came along and told them what the Europeans called it. Would they accept this as a word in their language? Or would they regard it as foreign and strange? Probably the second one. With enough time and exposure to these new things they might eventually borrow the word and change the pronunciation slightly and start applying grammatical endings to it, thus slowly absorbing it into their language.

That word would eventually find its way into the box. Actually, there is a better analogy. It’s a bit like a soup. Words are the carrots, and parsely and pieces of meat in the soup. This kind of soup is your favourite. It’s your soup. It’s something you are familiar with and you like it. Later people start adding garlic to it. Urgh! You hate garlic but over time you get used to it and even start to like it. It’s still your soup but it is a bit different now.

This really is the true nature of language. It’s a soup. It has bits and pieces from all over the place. Some parts are new additions to the recipe like “selfie”, “unfriend”, “vlog” and “cryptocurrency”. Others are older like “decide”, “royal” and “soldier”. And finally we have words that we can trace all the way back to the original language of the Germanic tribes which English is descended from. These words include “I”, “me”, “you”, “fish”, “hound” and “sheep”.

The truth is that words come and go and there is no hard and fast rule of what makes something a word in a language. So one day a while ago someone from Europe ate sushi for the first time and I decided that their friends back home had to know about it. “I had the most amazing meal today. The locals call it ‘sushi'” they would write. And thus a word that had never before been used in English was used and the course of the language was changed ever so slightly. Never before had an English speaker used a single word to describe what this person was eating, but now they had and a new expression was now possible in English. This has happened in every language around the world.

Humans go out into the world, and eat and drink and try different things. They talk about their experiences and as they talk they influence their language ever so slightly. The language hums and sings with a thousand voices and all of them speak of the experiences of its users. English, Spanish, Japanese, French, Arabic, they are all just ways to communicate with those around us. They are all different in some ways and similar in some ways and they all have something to say about what it means to be human.

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