Luke’s Languages #9


Sir! I’ve just come from the frontlines—the enemy is upon us! The dreaded Essays are advancing, the Assignments are attacking from the east, and we are besieged by the forces of Reading! But in this most dire of emergencies we managed to slip a single rowboat through the dreaded armada of Lectures by night, and now I am here to deliver you an important communiqué concerning linguistics.


Over the next little while, we’re going to venture into the land of historical linguistics. Hopefully not the boring stuff, of course. There are (as far as we’re concerned) two main threads of historical linguistics: specific content change, and system-wide pattern change. The first is more fun for most laypeople, so we’ll start with etymology, which is kind of a stepping stone into content change.


We’ll talk about broader trends next time, but this time I just want to whet your appetites with a single example: “court”. It all begins way back in Latin, where two words, com- “with” and hortus “enclosed yard, field, or garden”, make cohors, a place of coming together—and later, the people in that place. That’s as far as it goes in Latin, but Latin and its fancy case system leaves a gift before the whole thing breaks down, namely the form cortem.


Perfect for French to inherit, amirite? They grab it as cort (later cour) with a newly narrowed meaning of the kingly or noble residence, and when they invade England the natural term for the government they set up falls right into our laps. In the next couple hundred years you get curteis (later courteous), meaning “how one behaves at court ” and court “offer homage, impress, as one does at court”, which narrows to what we mean when we say “woo”. Speaking of “whew”, we’ve come a long way, haven’t we?


But we’re not done. We’re set up for another semantic shift, that is, a word slipping on another meaning like a set of clothes and winking at us in its new disguise. Courteous yields courtesy, “being courteous”, and from that point on all kinds of polite gestures counting as “courtly” behaviour, whether they’re done in a court or not. Now imagine this (an example borrowed from C.S. Lewis, a master of medieval linguistics): a young lady does a little bow, bends at the knee, and picks up of the corners of her skirt. An onlooker remarks her “courtesy”—by which he doesn’t mean any of the actual actions she performed, but the quality that she demonstrated by the action. But if you get that often enough, the meaning begins to drift… until it finds a new home in the form of curtsy!


Now, leaving aside the spelling and pronunciation changes for the time being, we’ve more or less covered how “being together in a yard” yielded “kingly residence”, “wooing a lover”, “politeness”, and “picking up the edges of your skirt”. Oh, and somewhere along the line the Romans looked at cohors and thought, “Wouldn’t that make a great term for a division of an army?” So now we got skirts, lovemaking, and armies. Nice work, history. Nice work.


I hope you liked the story of one word and its family through time. Tune in next time to see how trends like this apply on a larger scale!


(P.S. Oh my goodness, there’s a last piece of the story before we leave! If you have a quick ear, you might recognize offshoots of hortus in other languages. A notable example is Russian -gorod and -grad, both suffixes for city names (as in Novgorod and Stalingrad, for example). English yard comes by an indirect route, through German Garten—which for us is “garden” and is also the same word in “Kindergarten”, literally “yard (or garden) for children”—which itself comes eventually from hortus. Duh.)