Have you ever wondered what the meaning of your name is? And have you been, by any chance, wondering why you have been studying Latin at school? Or perhaps you have tried to impress someone with your knowledge of language? And no, I don’t mean trying to pronounce those hard French sounds to strike with awe that beautiful girl sitting next to you. What I mean is to be able to make language talk to you by itself, to make it actually work for you, to learn to understand what words really want to tell you. And before you proclaim me crazy, let me try to explain what I mean.
You are speaking in your mother tongue every day. In fact, you use language in all your actions and you might not even realize it. Fortunately for us (or unfortunately), there is this group of people who are famous for their language skills and for their passion for researching everything related to language. They even have a science of their own and it is called linguistics.
Linguists love to play with language in all its forms, be it written, spoken or even sign language. They can tell you how to effectively learn a foreign language, explain how our brain relates to the way we speak, or can simply teach you how to write in a more grammatical manner. Linguists can go deeper however. A particular group of linguists calling themselves ‘etymologists’ love to engage with the so called Indo-European language (I will come back to this Indo-something shortly), and use it to trace the history of humanity so that they can reveal the way peoples across the world relate to one another! Logically, the branch of linguistics dealing with the history of languages and the origin of words would be called, you guessed it – etymology! So, it is etymology which can help us answer all those questions I asked you in the beginning of the text.
Before revealing how this can happen, let me show you where is this etymology positioned within the field of linguistics:
Wow! Language does not seem as innocent as you might have thought! As you can see, linguists are in fact investigating various characteristics of language which they love to call ‘levels’ or aspects’ of language. Each of these try to answer various questions, for example, phonology is asking how do we pronounce ‘a’, ‘b’ or any other language-related sound, morphology is dealing with things such as the ending of the words, syntax focuses on the way we make our sentences sound nice and sound, semantics is interested in the meaning of words, pragmatics researches the way we use language and lexicology – this is the branch dealing with words in general. Oh, and there’s our etymology! As part of lexicology, it deals with words, and more precisely, with a specific aspect of words, their history. To put it better, this is what MerriemWebster dictionary suggests as a definition –etymology is:
“the history of a word shown by tracing it or its parts back to the earliest known forms and meanings both in its own language and any other language from which it may have been taken.”
So, how can the history of words help us find a solution our introductory questions? Before we answer, I would like to introduce you to some important terminology which will help you understand how and why etymology is your tool.
Do you remember that thing called Indo-European language? Well, according to linguists, some thousands of years ago, almost all Europeans spoke one language. As we all evolve and change with time, so did the Indo-European language (or Proto Indo-European, it’s the same). With time, it started changing so much, that it split into different dialects which later evolved to what we now call modern languages. The whole story behind that ancient common language is similar to our family relations. When we find a partner in our lives and make children, we remain related to each other and we call ourselves a family. Languages across the world are also part of one big family which traces its roots back to their grand-grand-grand-grand (…) mother Indo-European language. Thus, by investigating ancient and death languages, researchers are able to reconstruct lost traces of our common ancestry and detect all those language family relations I am talking about.
And look at that tree! It beautifully illustrates the family relations between (probably) all your known languages. Did you find your language there? As you can see, most of the languages between Europe and India are in fact related. You might be wondering what is that Mother Tongue tree at the bottom doing there. Well, the explanation is pretty cool – there is a theory claiming that absolutely all languages (and not only the Indo-European ones) are related to a primordial ancient language, the mother of all world tongues, that gave birth to all human languages. Unfortunately, there is still not enough information and that is why linguists are trying to find proves for the existence of this superior mother language. And if the job of linguists reminds you of that of Indiana Johns, you are right – like him, linguists are constantly digging into the ground to find something lost (well, ok, almost the same, linguists dig into those old dusty books no one would dare to open).
Ok, enough theory, I still want to make you aware of why is etymology cool and useful to know. Let me start with some examples of what has etymology helped humanity discover. Did you know that in fact Russian, Bulgarian and Polish are related meaning that speakers of those languages are able to understand each other without necessarily speaking the same language? How about this – I bet you have been always wondering what is this ‘k’ in the word ‘knowledge’ doing. It is certainly not there to make your life harder. In fact, this ‘k’ dates back to the Indo-European language which, to indicate the meaning of knowledge, was using a ‘g’ instead of a ‘k’ in front. And here comes the fun part – the English ‘knowledge’ is related to the Slavic ‘znanie’ and the Greek ‘gnosis’ meaning the exact same thing – knowledge! They might not look alike but their mother is the same, so they are like borthers and sisters. The old ‘g’ simply changed to ‘z’ and ‘k’, and remained ‘g’ in Greek. So, that’s why the ‘k’ stays there. English simply does not like to remove sounds (I have the feeling they prefer to add ones but that’s another topic!) and they keep their royal relation to her Majesty the Indo-European language.What about that – the English word ‘visible’ is related to the Slavic ‘vijdam’ (to see) and to the Hindi ‘veda’ (knowledge). Therefore, to see = to know! Well, now it makes sense why we think of ourselves as rational beings. Ancient people were obviously quite wise.
Finally, etymology can also be beautiful. How about going out for a walk under the stars with a beautiful girl and then pointing your index finger towards the dark starry skies. Just mention her that the word ‘astronaut’ comes from Greek and in fact means ‘a sailor amongst the stars’. I think she will instantly fall in love with you!
So, as you can see, besides being fun and making those boring grammar lessons into an exciting adventure into the past, etymology helps us rediscover the world’s knowledge which in turn can help us realize who we really are.
Beware though! As any science, etymology has its own rules and it might not look as innocent as you might have thought. When it comes to playing the game of etymologies, these rules can become harsh and nobody is insured. The situation needs an explanation from an expert who is aware of all these issues. That is why, I am now going to now meet you with an amazing guy, currently an assistant professor in Latin in the Medical University of Plovidv, who, besides being a language lover, knows
10 languages and helps students learn the beauty of etymology and how to apply it with caution in their daily lives. Meet the modern version of the Indiana Johns of linguists, Ivan Petrov!
He was eager to help us learn more about etymology and promised that he will try to share with us some tips how to make the best of it.
Ivan starts our conversation with a note of concern. Many people have fallen into the trap of etymology, and nowadays it is mainly used for political and ideological reasons which often becomes the source of dispute between international and local communities.
“A fake etymology can serve various purposes like supporting pseudo-scientific theses or ideologies”, says he. For example, it is common in modern times extremist Muslim groups to claim that the Arabic word ‘jihad’ means war against the ‘infidels’ whereas in fact it relates to the war against your own self and the bad habits you have. Unfortunately, such literal interpretations of rather complex words like ‘jihad’ have taken the lives of hundreds of innocent people and continue to create pressure between religious denominations. “That is why, it is important for people to get educated about their language”. This does not simply mean getting A’s in those boring grammar lessons. For Ivan Petrov, non- specialists (like those terrorists) dealing with etymology could easily fall into the trap of creating a fiction rather than science. And remember? To know meant to see, so we should strive to act reasonable and stick to the truth of the world.
Etymology is no simple game.
“It does not have any particular place in modern science, it is rather a crossroad of science, abstract thinking (often looking a lot like mathematical formulas) and imagination. It relies on laws, established by the scholars’ tradition. Without them, everybody could derive everything from anything, but this is already fiction and creative writing, not science.”
I have earlier mentioned that languages develop with time. As any other science, etymology has its own laws and rules. Those rules depend largely on the way language changes with time. In our case, words are often affected by the sounds they contain (like that ‘k’ in ‘knowledge’ for example) and this can change the way the word will look in the future. And this, according to Ivan Petrov, is often the main source of confusion.
To make this point clearer, take the word ‘estado’ in Spanish. It is related to the English ‘state’. Spanish however find it hard to pronounce a word starting with ‘st’ and an initial ‘e’ has appeared. In turn, this ‘e’ influences the way the other sounds in that word are pronounced. An etymologist working with Spanish for example would know why this ‘e’ has appeared and can easily find a relation between ‘estado’ and ‘state’. This difference might seem trivial but here comes the tricky part – you can have two very similar words which are not related to each other at all! For instance, the word for God in Greek is “Theos” and in Latin – “Deus”. They look alike, am I not right? When I was doing my bachelor’s in linguistics, I had always thought these two were derived from some common Indo-European word. It turned out that they had a totally different source of meaning and it was purely by chance their sounds were similar. And the other way around, the words for ‘knowledge’ I gave earlier, they might look entirely different, but were in fact – related.
Now I think I am confused myself! I am first telling you etymology is fun, beautiful and can help us impress people around us. Now it seems like there are tons of rules and on the top of that, exceptions, sounds and dangers and… Ok, no panic, I still want to prove that etymology can be learnt by anyone, at least its basics.
Ivan Petrov believes there are no specific rules or guidelines but there can be for sure some steps we can follow to use etymology in our daily lives!
“Etymology might be demanding”, continues Ivan Petrov. “Good knowledge of at least two ancient languages can sometimes not be enough as certain examples could deal with very contextual meanings where more subtle competences would be needed in understanding the original text where the word appears.”
‘But how do you teach these things to your students?’, I dared to ask.
‘I actually use interactive tools such as videos from YouTube or simply show some diagrams!’
This would be an example of a diagram Ivan would use in class
This picture shows how the word for ‘mother’ relates across different languages that reach as far as India! Such diagrams are a fun way to demonstrate ties of different words and make students remember language relations easier.
‘An even more important moment is the ability to fact-check the sources of information’. Popular science articles on origins of word roots and meanings, as with any other branch of modern science, are abundant on the web because, by just typing “etymology of butter” you will instantly find hundreds of sources on where butter came from. And while people might argue whether butter is German or Swiss, Ivan Petrov suggests that “first and most of all, be sure about your sources. Nowadays literally anybody could write anything on the web. For etymologies, there are a lot of trusted dictionaries that are freely available on the internet, such as the Etymonline, the etymological dictionary of the English language, or the German on presented as a short etymological section in the page of Duden.”
Another helpful tip is to “get acquainted with some older language. E.g. Latin is a must for those interested in languages such as French, Spanish, Italian, Portuguese. Old English, or Old High German will be really useful for those interested in modern English, Norwegian or Icelandic.”
When asked what makes him a better etymologist, Ivan Petrov answered me with a big smile on his face.
‘Learn languages! The more, the better! Learn their systems and check your guess about the relations with other languages , which you’ll eventually get on the way, in dictionaries and specialized literature. Or just ask people with bigger experience, believe me, they’ll be glad to share their passion with others!’
Go ahead, check the meaning of your name! I think that would be a great start, as advised by Ivan.
And since you have probably opened this article due to its catchy title, you most probably already feel disappointed that I constantly keep saying that there are no golden rules or guidelines and yet, I am offering a survival guideline. To keep my promise, and with the help of Ivan, let me try to summarize
7 helpful steps you can follow to impress your beloved next time with your knowledge of the origins of words.
- Learn an older language that is not spoken anymore. Let it be related to the languages you are interested in. For example, if you are Dutch and you want to know more about your own language, a good start would be Old High German.
- Learn the basic patterns for the way language changes. I told you earlier that language changes. So do the sounds of language. As you saw, ‘g’ can easily become a ‘z’ or a ‘k’ and you can actually find some information about that even in Wikipedia!
- Look for some YouTube videos which show in an interactive manner the way a certain word has developed through time. But again, be careful with those! 4. If you find two words that look related, do not quickly make the conclusion they are related. You can use trusted, freely-distributed online etymological dictionaries such as the etymonline.com, which can help you learn even more about a particular word. Feel free to play with words, try to look for their roots in these dictionaries, learn and discover and soon you will find yourself seeing and knowing more about the relations between languages!
- Ask for help or advice from professionals. Nowadays, there are numerous academic forums where students and instructors often discuss interesting trends and topics including etymology! Or, if you have that nerdy language-lover friend, who, by any chance has a degree in linguistics, now is the time to approach him or her!
- Learn new modern languages. The more you learn, the more your abilities to detect relations will increase. And remember, grammar is actually your friend. The more you know about it and stop avoiding it, the easier it will be. Ivan Petrov himself speaks 10 languages and he shares that “there is this feeling one might call intuition, which becomes your best friend when looking at two words. And grammar… grammar is simply its food [of that intuition]”.
- Finally, you can never be sure. As none of us has ever managed to go back in time (or at least to my humble knowledge), the modern reader should always express her doubts and check the sources of the claims.