The Thinking of Speaking
Issue #9 May / June 2014
Letter From The Editor
Tracing Words
by Erik Zidowecki
May / June 2014 | 

When we study a language, we are learning thousands of words. They make up a kind of fingerprint for a language; we can often guess what a language is just by seeing a few of its words. The vocabulary of a language gives the language a unique identity.

Languages also evolve over time, usually coming from an older language and becoming mixed with and being influenced by neighbouring languages of the region where the language is spoken. All this information helps us trace the origins of a language. We can categorize each language into a family, branch and group of a large tree structure.

But where do these individual words come from? Why do we use one particular string of letters and sounds to represent an object or concept over another? What is the significance of names? Why are some things given long names while others receive short labels?

Just as there is a study of languages, there is also a study of words. Etymology seeks to discover the history of words, their origins, and how their meanings and forms have changed from the original to the modern. Not only is each word part of a fingerprint, but the words have fingerprints of their own!

The immediate benefit of this tracing is to categorize languages into related families. You have probably done this yourself a number of times without even thinking about it. For example, if we take the English word "water", we can look at how it is translated. We can easily recognize it as being the identical word in Afrikaans, Dutch and Low Saxon. The Frisian wetter and German Wasser are also close enough, so we can guess they are related. This suggests all these languages have a related ancestry, so we put them in the same family, which we call Germanic.

But then we find other forms that are a bit more removed: voda (also spelled Вада in Cyrillic) for Bosnian, Bulgarian, Croation, Czech, Russian, Serbian, Slovenian and more. This suggest another language family, Slavic.

A third family, Italic is born to accommodate these versions: acqua (Italian, Corsican), aghe (Friulan), agua (Spanish), aiga (Occitan), aigua (Catalan), aqua (Latin), auga (Galician) and água_ (Portuguese).

Making these distinctions cannot be done on just a single word, however. The French word for water is eau, yet French is in the Italic family. That is because of other influences upon the French language which caused a greater change from the original Latin aqua.

Once the languages can be grouped together, etymologist can then use further comparative methods to infer the vocabulary and structure of the language which they all derived from. In this case, even though the three families of Germanic, Slavic and Romance differ, they are still similar enough to suggest they are all related to a larger, older root language, referred to as "Indo-European", which no longer exists.

We will be using etymology to look at the origins and connections of various basic words for foods and liquids in a new column called "Words in Your Mouth", starting this month with "sausage". We hope you have as much fun exploring these word histories as we do!

Erik Zidowecki

Letter From the Editor
Writer: Erik Zidowecki
Petey: Waterfall

All images are Copyright - CC BY-SA (Creative Commons Share Alike) by their respective owners, except for Petey, which is Public Domain (PD) or unless otherwise noted.


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