Luke’s Languages #10


Welcome back, everyone! I hope you’ve been enjoying the snow, otherwise I’m guessing you’re pretty miserable by now. Well, put another log on the fire, and let’s get down to the good stuff!

Last week we looked at the evolution of a single word, “court”, and everything that comes before, around, and after it, as well as a quick glance at a cousin, “cohort”, that took a different historical path. Different route, same root. Get it? Anyway, the linguistic terms we’ll use for these relations, if I may steal them from relations between languages, are “mother”, “sister”, and “daughter”. (In-law I made up, but for good reasons.) All of the above are “cognates”.

All words have mothers, of course, just like all languages, unless you go so far back that the line between random grunts and actual human language starts to blur. Most languages also have sisters, and a smaller number of mostly dead languages have daughters. For example, English, Dutch, and German are all sisters whose mother is Old Germanic. Meanwhile, Sanskrit is still alive and has many daughters, and has even outlived some of them, including (the most part of) Latin and Ancient Greek.

The farther back you go, the more languages start to look disturbingly similar. There are certainly bigger families, including Germanic, Italic, Slavic (Russian-type), Indic, and huge bushels of North American, African, Sinitic (Chinese-type), Australian, Uralic (weird-type… just kidding),  and other languages. Staggering, really. But before that, the whole first half of that list looks like it would be better grouped as Indo-European; they just share too many similar roots. Go further back and a few rare linguists even suggest that they’re all from the same thing (for example, almost all the languages in the above groups have a word for “mother” that begins with “m”—could it really be coincidence, they ask?).

So what do they share? What genes do they pass on, so to speak? At the most surface level, and what we’ll start with today after last week’s lead-in, is the vocabulary. I say “surface” because there are a lot of things lurking under it, but they’re harder to see—and often less exciting.

Vocabulary, on the other hand, has the magical ability of changing form like a chameleon while revealing itself to be the same if you just poke it. It’s also so versatile that, unlike other language features, it can jump across languages and nestle in. It’s been doing so in English for so long that we have a gigantic vocabulary, much of it a pastiche of everyone else’s hard-earned words. See, English is kind of slutty, sleeping with and making daughters with every language it runs into on the street.

Our language also gives back, though; when other languages do borrow, in this modern age it tends to be English they lift what they need from.

Sometimes there’s even give-and-take, as when French gives us “boeuf”, which we transmute into “[roast] beef” before they take it back as “rosbif”. In fact, that last one is so symbolic of English that it is to the French what “frog” is to us… how affectionate!

Words also change more subtly and slowly as they change hands and as the people who use them grow old and get on with their life. That’s like what happened with “court” last week. Its sound changed to keep pace with the language it was in, from cohortus to cort to cour (once pronounced like “cower”, now like “coor”) and beyond. No one at the time noticed these changes; they happened naturally as the language itself evolved, carrying its vocabulary with it in its wings.

They can also change shape. We saw that last week, too. “Court” turned into “courtesy” (noun), “courteous” (adjective), and “courteously” (adverb). It’s called “derivation”: we shove a stock ending onto the word and use it in a new sense. It’s like recycling. English can even do an invisible (“zero”) derivation; “court” (verb) has the same shape as the noun. If only recycling was as easy in real life, I might bother to do it…

Most exciting, at least to me, is how the meaning changes, like how the sisters of “court” range from skirts to armies. That’s where it gets really imaginative, and where the really human element of invention comes into play. You can check out interesting words yourself in an etymological dictionary or, much more realistically for our generation, on

Again: Why not go look up any one of the many words in this article? If you find (or already know about) a fascinating one, email me about it! I’ll start you off with “etymology” itself: Greek etymon “true, real, actual”, plus logia “study of”. History of words? Bah! More like “study of the truth”! Makes you feel like it’s worth your time now, dunnit?

Tune in next week for more historical linguistics!