Archives for posts with tag: Indo-European languages

Since the early 2000’s, there has been a chain e-mail going around that claims to tell the etymology of the English word shit. The e-mail features a cockamamie story that has to do with shipping manure across the ocean and having to dry it out so it doesn’t explode, culminating in an acronym, Store High for Imminent something or whatever, for shit. I didn’t need to consult Snopes.com to realize that this story is a hoax. The truth, of course, is much more interesting, if you’re a linguist like me.

The word shit has been in the English language, and meant the same thing, largely, for hundreds and hundreds of years. In forms ranging from our beloved shit to the Old English scittan, which nobody really knows how to pronounce, the word has graced our language since its formation. Across the Indo-European spectrum, we see versions of shit all over the place: σκατά – ‘skata’ (Greek), Scheißescheisse (German), stront (Dutch), stercus (Latin), सर्जन – sarjana (Sanskrit), skidt (Danish)—you get the idea. Keep in mind that we are going for phonetic variations on the same word here, and I find it not inconceivable that the sounds [st] and [sk] could be easily swapped.

The most interesting part about all of this, however, is this: the theory goes that in Proto-Indo-European, the root *skei meant something along the lines of ‘to diverge, separate’. The idea is more easily recognizable in words like schism, or scissors, which come from the same root as shit. Less obviously, the word science also comes from the same root, through the Latin scire, ‘to know’; the original meaning of scire was probably more along the lines of ‘to distinguish’. The Sanskrit word, सर्जन – sarjana, has multiple meanings, as all Sanskrit words do; this word can also mean ‘to create’ (in the sense of giving up a part of yourself) or ‘to surrender’.

Nice to know so much about what is truly one of the most expressive words in the English language!

I’ve got most of my information from www.etymonline.com, an endlessly fascinating site, if you’d like to take a look.

Next time you use the word shit, remember what it used to mean once upon a time. Make you reconsider using it? Probably not. In fact, for many English speakers, shit is little more than a reflex, like ouch or ow. 

But is it a ‘reflex’, in the natural sense of something universally human, or is it really influenced by language? In Ghana, people say adzei (pronounced like ah-jé) if they trip and fall, not ouch. These seem to be different sounds at first glance, but they do seem to be relatively slight phonetic variations on the same theme, no? The line between expletives and non-linguistic sounds can sometimes be a thin one.

But that is a story for another day. 🙂

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Partial tree of Indo-European languages. Branc...

Aren’t we a good-looking bunch?

Two semesters ago I took a class on Old English. It was a great class! I learned many things that helped to change the way I think about my native tongue, and in some ways, the way I use it.

For example, it is interesting to note that Modern English, today probably the most powerful language on the planet in terms of political or social prevalence, began on a tiny murky island somewhere in the foggy north of Europe, an unlikely love child of the Germanic and Romance lines of the Indo-European clan.

This kind of thing boggles my mind.

What we call Old English, spoken first in the Middle Ages, is not intelligible to English speakers today. (Contrary to popular belief, Shakespeare did not write in ‘Ye Olde Englishee’, but in what is considered to be Modern English.) The roots of English are deeper than many people recognize.

But for the French invasion of 1066, and the following birth of Middle English, my native language would sound more like Danish today. Since the French became the more dominant power in England of that time, and the English aristocracy continued to speak French for generations, most of the words we associate with power or elegance are the Romance (Latin) ones: excellence, royal, special, beauty, to name a very few. In contrast, most of the words we associate with daily life or ‘peasantry’ are still Germanic in origin: cow, farm, house, child. Try it yourself: have a conversation, trying only to use words with a Germanic origin. It’ll be impossible, but you’ll probably be speaking largely in monosyllables. Then, try to say something using only words with Latin origins. Again, it’ll be impossible, but you’ll sound pretty highfaluting for a while. (The reason it is so hard to do this is because English is such an intertwined mash of the two linguistic traditions. There was once a movement in India to purge Hindi, a Sanskritic language, of all Persian/Arabic influences. This was ultimately impossible for the same reason.)

French (itself a language influenced by the Franks, a Germanic tribe) has a very large number of cognates with English. But since only the lexicon (vocabulary) of French was transferred, English still retains its Germanic syntax (~ grammar) structure, and thus we still do very uniquely Germanic things like putting the subject always before the verb.

Studying the English family tree is like studying that of a hobbit, so complex and riddled with cross-lines and loops it is. Keep in mind that both the Germanic and Romance lines come from the greater Indo-European family, which also produced the Sanskritic tradition in India, the Celtic languages of Europe, Hellenic (Greek) languages, and Indo-Iranian (Persian) languages, among others. When I say that the roots of the most powerful language in the world today go deeper than most people realize, it is partly because Modern English is so very new, in the grand scheme of things, and the mysterious language whence it sprung is also the matriarch of literally hundreds of languages spoken across the globe. This is one of the reasons I feel confused when people advocate for a universal language. Many of our languages are related anyway! If that thought doesn’t connect people, I don’t know what will.

Also keep in mind that we who write and read English are using a writing system developed by the ancient Romans, borrowed through the Etruscans from the Greeks, who stole it from the Phoenecians, who were Semitic peoples including what became Arabs and some Africans.

But that’s a story for another day. 🙂