Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Our Father Who Art

Among the most common IE roots I've come across, root words for "shine" and "blow" seem to be very prevalent and have a lot of modern words that have swum to us across the ages. This post deals with some words for "shne" which come from a peculiar little IE root: dyeu. (You'll notice I don't try to offer a pronunciation for these root words. Why? Two reasons primarily, I don't speak Indo-European fluently and the whole point is that there are root stubs and we're more concerned about the down-stream words they turn into.)

I think you can see that from dyeu we get diary (a record of our lives which happen daily - when the sun is "shining".) Journal also comes from this root. Similarly the French say "bon jour" (good day) and we adjourn our business at the end of (the shining part of the) day. One of my favorites, circadian (about daily), owes it di to dyeu. But this wonderful root takes us much, much further afield than words about life under the shining sun.

The movie, Dead Poets Society, taught us to Carpe Diem (seize the day). Some enterprising Christians modified the term only slighty and printed a popular t-shirt proclaiming Carpe Deum (literally "seize God", meaning, I hope, get connected with God). This shows how similar our words are for (the shining) day and for diety (which also comes directly from dyeu). World travelers will note that the Spanish may wish us "buenos dias" (good day) or they may offer a blessing by saying "adios" (go to/with God). The French say "adieu" (which did little more to the thousands-years-old root than add a meaning "to/with" and turn the original y into an i. Pretty straight forward path.

How do we get from day to diety? The Judeo-Christian tradition starts out by God creating the world in a matter of days. If God creates all that shines, he must - of necessity - shine even moreso Himself. That is the essence of the common religious world "glory". Most religions have a sense of deity and, more often than not, those ideas include references to light, shining, glory, etc.

We have a handful of other god-names in our modern vocabulary that swim down from dyeu. As I said, deity is there and so, too, is divinity and diva (because she acts like she's a god). The old Norse Tyr (change d to t - it's easy to hear, and add an r) is not common to us, but once a week we honor him with a day I like to call Tues-day. Of course, it is not hard to see and hear Zeus in dyeu - he was the chief Greek god. But what about the Romans who come later and gave the weary Greek gods an extreme makeover? The Romans bowed in reverence to their chief god - Jupiter. Do you see how easy dyeu can be written and sounded out as ju? What about the last part, "-piter".

We have a houseful of words with the ancient root p-ter. Maury Povich has found his groove doing paternity tests to determine who is someone's baby daddy. We like to call our soldiers patriotic because they defend the father-land. And orginally, a patron was someone who provided support to artists and craftsmen as if he was their father. Oh my, yes, change the p to an f and, very clearly you have "father". So the Romans told us a lot about themselves when they called their god "God the Father" - or maybe they told us something important about God!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Eager To Make My Point

I'm addicted to but a few things and bicycling is one of them. (I should clarify that I'm addicted to watching bicycling on TV, although I do enjoy touring around my local trails on my Specialized RockHopper trail bike, too - I'm just not addicted to it.) Specifically, I love watching the Tour de France each July.

A couple years ago,
Versus network's play by play announcer, Paul Sherwen, said some words to the effect, "Now these boys are turning up into the sharp teeth of the mountains, and trust me, they didn't come here to just go half way up."

In those few words he nailed one of the most fascinating subsets of words that have flowed to us from the mother-tongue. It all starts with the
IE root, ak meaning "sharp". Now think of all things you refer to as sharp. From "sharp dresser" to "sharp cheese", it can mean different things. Sherwen was accurate (accurate is an ak word itself meaning "right to the point") when he described Europe's Alps mountain range as sharp (one peak is even called a "horn" - now that's sharp). Are you familiar with America's Sawtooth mountain range? What could be sharper than a blade of sawteeth?

Acid is often described as being sharp and this certainly includes fods with acidic ingredients (lemon juice or vinegar) which we say have a "sharp taste". In the early days of chemistry, scientists found that all acids had one component in common so they named the element that made acids acidic: oxygen (ak - sharp + gen - making (as in generate)). If something has a very bitter, sharp smell we describe it as acrid, like acid, just with an extra letter picked up somewhere along it's long life.

Of course, an axe is sharp. An acute pain is very sharp! Even the word ear derives eventually f
rom ak - think of an ear of corn, not that soft round thing hanging on the side of your head. Eager has an ancestor in aks, meaning someone who is "sharp". In times past, eager has also meant "keen or sharp-edged". Remember that Wile E. Coyote was always trying to capture (or blow up) Road Runner with one contraption or another from the Acme Co? Acme means "highest" - the sharp point, the top, only the best. Oh, and by the same reasoning, acne also means "point" - I think the reasoning is clear.

But there's one more word that includes ak and I think it speaks to the wonderful color lying beneath the surface of everyday words. My pal, Paul Sherwen assured me that Lance Armstrong and all his followers (literally) hadn't come to the sharp mountain points of the Alps to stop at half-way. Thank goodness! But what if they had. What word would we use to describe a person who stopped half-way (medi) up the mountain (ak)... medi+ak, or as we know the word today: mediocre. Yes, every time you say, write, hear, or read mediocre, you are engaged in a literal word-picture of someone (something) that had the ability or desire to go to the top, but stopped half-way. What a disappointment!

And welcome back to the Tour, Lance!

Going Where No Man Should Ever Go

A century and a half ago, there was a television personality named Art Linkletter (who, by the way, turned down Walt Disney's generous offer for Art to commercially develop the land surrounding a little amusement park Walt was planning to build in the orange groves of out-lying Las Angeles). Linkletter had a schtick called "Kids Say the Darndest Things". Art asked one little shaver how many people lived in his home. The tyke answered, "One adult and one adultress." This simple statement (whether fact or faux pas has never been investigated) riveted my attention for years. What is the difference between adult and adultery and why is it so desirable to become one and not the other?

Throughout BackWords we're going to deal with many prefixes and suffixes, most of which came to us from Latin and Greek. Our first prefix is one of the most common: ad- meaning "to". The second part of adult is, obviously, ult - does that ring a bell? ult derives from an IE (remember, Indo-European) word for "beyond". You see it in words like "ultimate", "ulterior", and even "alter" and "alternate". An adult is "to beyond" or better, has grown to (an age) beyond (childhood). Similarly (in terms of meaning) an adulterer is someone who has gone to (someone) beyond (the marriage partner). We have here identical word parts with dramatically different meanings. That happens a lot!

BONUS WORD: Hidalgo is a given-name in Spanish cultures. See the al part of the word? It also derives from the idea of "beyond". The hid part was originally fid... that we see in in words like "fillial" and "affiliate" with a core meaning of "family". Hid, in this case means son. The al part in this word means "beyond you and me". Hidalgo mean "the son who is beyond (belonging to) me or (belonging to) you, but is the son of all of us." We have a term "favorite son" that has this same idea - because a popular or accomplished person is from our home town, we can all claim ownership of him.

A Tower's Long Tale

It's hard for me to suggest to anyone that they really should read Calvert Watkins' essay on the Indo-European language group, but if you're feeling adventurous, I recommend you at least give it a scan. Basically, Watkins discusses the idea that the vast majority of modern languages derive from the common tongue of one ancient people. Think of it as verbal evolution. This is idea is held by the majority of linguists.

If you read Watkins' essay, or if you trust me implicitly, you'll note that the Indo-European (IE) root stock is traced back in time to several thousand years BC. The most common date range assigned to the known existence of the mother tongue is around 2000-3000BC. Several derivative, daughter languages are firmly dated 1500 to 2000BC. There is also general agreement as to the location of this mother-tongue culture. The name says it all, Indo (as in India) and European (as in, don't make me do this, Europe). The IE origin language-culture spread from some central point in time and place and spread out from there. If you were to visit your favorite cartographer's shoppe and ask for him to point to a place, oh say, between India and Europe, he would take his long wooden pointy thing and whack the parchment smack dab in what we call the Middle East, home of present day Iran, Iraq, etc.

Now this get's my attention, because back in elementary school, one of my favorite words was Mesopotamia. I liked it for two reasons. One, because it sounded funnier if you said "mess o' potatoes", but also because the word was a description meso (middle / between) + potamia (the rivers - potable water). Mesopotamia was the "cradle of civilization" springing up between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in modern day Iraq (ancient Babylon) - in fact, in the very plain where Baghdad is today.

Now also back in elementary days, I learned a fantastic story about a tower built in Babylon. In fact, the name Babylon (well attested and not challenged by anyone as to its existence) derives from the tower built in that area - Babel (as discussed in the Bible's book of Genesis, chapters 10-11). Now, many people object to taking the Bible literally and certainly many, many people object to taking the first 11 chapters of Genesis literally. Hey, this blog is NOT about theological debate so, lean (like another famous tower) whichever way you like on the finer points of theology / Bible history.

But isn't this interesting. Calvert Watkins and his colleagues have determined that most modern languages derive from a specific time and place that, as legend has it, was famous as the time and place where one group of people had a common language until their one language became multi-lingual and all the people of that time and place spread out from there to the uttermost parts of the earth. I'd say that there's some awfully strong circumstantial evidence to reckon with here. The Tower of Babel may be just the opening chapter of a long and beautiful biography of hundreds of languages flowing out upon the surface of earth.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Foreword to BackWords

I have been to the zoo. I didn’t make the animals that live there. I didn’t capture and cage them. I didn’t design the grounds and the systems that support the zoo. I didn’t even drive the little train that travels throughout the zoo and holds up pedestrians trying to get from bear canyon to the monkey pavilion. I just went there. And now, I want to tell you what I saw. In this case, the animals are made of letters and sounds and their native habitat is the mother tongue of a hundred languages. I saw words.

I owe 99.9% of the credit for this work to Calvert Watkins, a brilliant man who traveled to the remotest swamps, darkest jungles, driest deserts, and steepest mountain sides of language and captured word-species that reveal an ancient genetic code that still flows in the life-blood of words that we see roaming about us daily. That ancient font of genes flowed from a people group called the Indo-Europeans. From that root-stock DNA of all living words, most of the languages from India to Ireland were formed.

One of the hardest things to understand about words is primarily
that they are only sounds representing ideas. Only in the last 600 years has the printed word prevailed over language. Since then, the evolution, or better, the mutation of language has been slowed because when a word is in print, we have a reference point for the correct spelling, pronunciation, and meaning of that word. (The first English dictionary was published in 1604.) Prior to the printing press – a veritable verbal corral – words were free to roam. In the same way that Atlantic salmon taste different from Pacific salmon, words picked up new “tastes” as they wandered about. As they roamed, they picked up the characteristics of their habitat – they often changed sounds, they often changed spelling, and they usually gained new shades of meaning (and sometimes the genetic mutation was so profound, words changed their meaning entirely - that's "pretty" "terrific").

By way of example: It is said that Eskimos have several dozen words for snow. In English, most of those words have become extinct – we didn’t feed them through our use of them. Conversely, not many aboriginal peoples have the word “byte” which in technological language means 8 bits, each bit being a 0 or a 1 that magically means something when it’s electrified. But many languages have a word for “bit” which simply means a small amount of something – data, money, food, rain, etc. But an electronic “bit” doesn’t derive from that small amount “bit” – it’s a contraction of binary digit – b+it, bit. “Byte” is a word which was invented (by IBM) to distinguish it from “bit”. We don’t know where these two words may go from here into future languages, but their meaning, and their spelling, has been created in our presence and shall usher forth from here. We have in our language today, what in the future may be a considered a missing link– we have seen in our time an evolutionary step in language. Ain’t it cool!

Consider the difference between the sounds of a single common word when spoken in English or Spanish. In English, we pronounce “j” as a soft “g” sound – as in juice. The Spanish-speakers pronounce “j” as an “h” as in house. English say juice, Spanish say jugos (who-goes). Our word for liquid from fruit also sounds almost exactly like our word for the Semitic people – Jews. I wonder if this suggests to Spaniards that we think Jews are the source, or the personification, of delightful nectar? Such is the nature of migration and evolution of words in language. For 5000 or more years, words had free range to wander almost aimlessly, picking up new characteristics and meanings as they roamed.

As you scan the contents of this work, please also bear in mind that while consonants changed frequently in the evolution of words, vowels are complete wildcards. An “a” in one word in one language at one time has absolutely no obligation to be an “a” in the next appearance of that word. Sometimes vowels hitch a ride with the original consonants, sometimes they take a permanent vacation. That leaves the consonants to fend for themselves and make new words that barely resemble their grandpas and great, great uncles. As I have worked through source materials, I have had to repeatedly chastise myself for expecting that “a” stay an “a”, “b” stay “b” and so on. (Here is a helpful table that reveals, in part, how a consonant in one language is represented by a far different consonant in another.)

Another way to think of the sounds that comprise words is to consider colors. Blue can refer to everything from a baby’s eyes to a turquoise stone, from the deep sea to the sky at twilight. I have seen “blue” cows that were nothing but white cows speckled with gray hairs. Blue even refers to a feeling which has nothing to do with color. There is no rule that blue has to be a finite portion of the color spectrum. Similarly, the “b” sound in one language can readily become a “p” or even “f” / “ph” sound in another. If you mumble the word “bush”, someone may think that you said “push” – excluding context. As the BackWords blog progresses, we’ll discover the sense of the relationship between “buckle” and “pucker”, between “beacon” and “phantom” / “fantastic”.

Consider how different the words “curl” and “circle” sound alike (especially the consonant sounds – k-l, s-k-l). The words mean virtually the same, but the sounds that represent them have begun to diverge. It doesn’t take a Roget scientist (that’s a pun) to see how the words relate in origin to one another, but we can also see that they are evolving in different directions – another missing link before our eyes. Darwin should be so lucky!

I’m fascinated with the word-part “chester”. Consider for a moment one of our favorite condiments – Worchestershire sauce. How do the folks in your household pronounce that mouthful of sounds? Heaven forbid that you tackle each syllable out loud. Knock off the “-shire” for a moment, the folks in England pronounce Worchestireshire as “Wooster”. The folks up in Massachusetts dropped “shire” and threw away the “h” and spell it “Worcester”, but still pronounce it “Wooster”. Finally, our sober Ohioans gave up on the whole deal and just spell it like it sounds, “Wooster”. Thank you. We’ve come a long way from Worchestershire to Wooster. There it is, in sounds and letters, the evolution of language unfolding before our eyes… and ears.

By way of another example: When my brother and I were in elementary school, I was probing him about an alleged girlfriend. I had a friend whose last name was Kimball. He reminded me of that name and said his friend’s name was like that, but with three letters different (and those different letters were all together). Aha!, my suspicions were confirmed, he did love what’s-her-name Kendall – so similar, but three letters different from Kimball. In print, the difference is clear – Kimball / Kendall. To the ear, the difference is very subtle. If I speak French and you speak Russian, I don’t understand most of what you say anyway. If you say your name is “Kendall”, I’ll go home and tell my wife I met a guy named Kimball or Kendall or something like that. I could call you “Kimball” to your face, but since you don’t understand most of what I am saying, you’ll never know that I am mispronouncing your name. And so, for generations, my kin will call you by a name that is not your name, until, to us, that is your name.

Calvert Watkins looked at meanings, not letters. By considering the symbols that represent those words, he reconstructed the grammatical history of the words and the letters that may have been at the heart of these words we see around us today. That’s when he (and fellow linguo-anthropologists) discovered the common threads that link together a strand of pearls that make a glorious necklace of words (is anyone keeping count of all these metaphors??).

To sum it all up, words played The Gossip Game for over 5000 years. One sentence, whispered in relay through twenty different people, will usually wind up with a far different meaning than it had at the beginning. Gutenberg fouled the whole thing up. If you write down a sentence and pass it on a piece of paper through twenty people, the sentence is exactly the same at the end as it was at the beginning. Well, Gutenberg made the world more sensible and accessible, but let’s go BackWords, before the printed word fenced in our wild word species and see who is related to whom.