Sunday 8 December 2013

Shifty words

Here's a striking map showing the words Europeans use for Church/Eaglais and here's a bunch more maps to cover such essentials as beer and apple.  In the church map I like the fact that the Turkish for church is clearly from the Greek: almost all Turks being muslim they'd need to borrow a word for a christian place of worship.  I also relish the fact that so many sources and ultimate etymologies have been dusted off to describe a building designed for prayer, including royal hall; assembly; lord's house; fort; and monastery.  There's another nice example of this in the fact that the Iberian words for head cabeza, cap and cabeça are clearly derived from classical Latin caput but French tête and Italian testa come from soldier's slang meaning box.  Testudo the tortoise comes from the same root.  It's as if a colloquial phrase like "I'll knock 'is bleedin' block off" gets promoted to formal language.

I am a lousy linguist, possibly because I have a bit of a tin ear, but have been collecting dictionaries ever since I first encountered yard-sales in Boston in the early 1980s.  How could Bob the Cheap turn down Teach Yourself Norwegian when the price was 25c or a Dictionary of Colloquial Roumanian for 10c?  Bound to come in useful for the children, I said.  Knowing other languages helps make sense of your own.  “Trap-door” loses some of its dangerous, not to say Freudian, associations when you know that trap is Dutch for stair.  In that same language dapper means brave, while in English it is quick/little and active/spruce.  Presumably, in Old High German, Tapfer was originally an adjective applied to knights. Over the years, Dutch knights, possibly valuing courage (Dutch courage after all) more than other cultures, retained the nobler part of the original meaning, while English knights concentrated on merely looking the part.  Horse appears to have no equivalent in other European languages although cavalry shares a root with Irish capall, French cheval and Italian cavallo.  But, not so, because in German ross has the sense of steed or charger.  Almost all European languages come to us from “Proto-Indo-European” PIE.  By finding things which have common words in most Indo-European languages you can hazard a guess at who the PIEians were and where they lived.  Sometimes the connexion is subtle – sheep, mouton (fr.), and caora (ir.) all seem very different but our ewe is essentially the same word as the Latin (ovis) and Sanskrit (avis) for sheep in general.  And from this one can deduce that PIEians herded woolly animals and other evidence/speculation/assertion suggests that they did this in central Asia more than 5000 years ago.

Sometimes the association is not obvious until you accept that languages evolve in quite consistent ways so that, as Jakob Grimm (Grimm’s Fairy Tales!) noted 150 years ago: PIE bh changed to b to p to f as the PIEians moved from Asia to Eastern Europe to Germany; while dh went to d to t to th. These two rules are both illustrated by the change from Greek poda (tripod, podiatrist) to our foot. Another example is gh – g – k – h (Latin cordis to English heart).  Nobody seems to know why this occurred. Is there any truth in the rumour that the th sound for S and Z which distinguishes Castillian from South American (and Andalusian) Spanish stems from the fact that mighty monarch Emperor Charles V referred to himself with his Habsburg lip as Carloth Thinco, and all the courtiers followed suit?

If you’re still with me but wondering where this is wandering, I’ll share some information that will be very useful if you go off to West Africa for an enriching experience.  Hausa is a language widely spoken in the region and is richly expressive in its use of useful proverbs and aphorisms.  I am sure you’ll be able to work these phrases into the conversation.
  • Giwa a garin wani, zomo: an elephant in another town is a rabbit
  • Tusa ba ta hura wuta: breaking wind won’t bring the fire to flame.  
Come to think of it, as Ireland gets more multi-cultural, you won’t have to go as far as Ouagadougou to try them out.


  1. Another illuminating post, twud be so much more flowing, if I remembered to back arrow out of the hyperlinks instead of x-ing them off grrr

    1. Sorry Russ, you're the only person who bothers to follow the links. Indeed I suspect that you're the only reader who gets beyond the first para. I often right-click on the links and open them in a new window or under a new tab.

    2. I get past the first para!!!

    3. I didn't mean YOU Anon. I know you have the stamina.