or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, November 13, 2007


If you suspected that I wasn't actually particularly learned about English, but was just some guy who really loves the language and reads a lot, here's your proof.

A couple of years ago I was going on about the word "leg", and neglected to mention that Indo-European "kamp-", which evolved into Greek "kampe", "joint", and then to Italian "gamba", also led to two fascinating and unexpected leg-related words: "gambol", to leap about playfully, and "gambit", a tactic by which you hope to trip someone up.

Well, it's not particularly awful to have left that out: I can't cover everything. But I also said that English "leg" was fro a Norse word, and then I said, "Who knew?" As it turns out, I would have known if I had more in-depth training in etymology, because, marvelously, a great many short hard-gee words in English are from the Norse tongues. (Lots of hard-kay words such as "crook" come from Norse, too. I'm thinking these people liked their beer cold, their horses fast, and their consonants hard.)

"Egg", for instance: it looks nothing like other European words for "egg", such as French "oeuf", German "Ei", or Italian "uovo". (A very old English word for "eggs", still used in the 15th century, was "ayren": obviously Germanic "ay-" plus a common plural ending in Middle English, "-en" or "-ren", as in "oxen" and "children". Old English had both "aeg" and "ey", each with various spellings, but eventually, "eggs" won out over "ayren".)

"Pig" is another of these Norse words, somewhat unlike Romance "porc/porco" but miles from Germanic "Schwein". (This has nothing to do with the topic at hand, but I thought you'd like to know anyway: "porpoise" is a concatenation and then a Frenchification of Latin "porco" and "piscis", which is to say "pig-fish". Huh!)

"Frog" isn't such a direct descendant of Norse tongues, which did have "froskr" but which also donated "frosk" to Old High German, which turned it into modern "Frosch". Middle English had both forms: Norse "frogge" and Germanic "frosh". We all know which one won out.

Here are some others: "slug", "nag", "rag" and "rug" (almost the same word, actually), "bridge" (it used to have a hard "-g" when it was Middle English "brigge"), and "lug".

Not all words that end in a hard "-g" are Norse, though. "Dog" is apparently one of those words that simply appeared in the language, mysteriously. English had a perfectly serviceable word for that animal, "hund", which is pure Germanic (they still use the word "Hund" for "dog") and survives in English as "hound". It's theorized that "dog" was used to refer to a specific breed of the animal, much as we say "Peke" or "Corgi" today, but nobody knows what breed it might have been, or why only that one breed was important enough to deserve its own name.

Hound, by the way, is fascinating all by itself. The Latin word for "dog" is "canis"; obviously, if Old English took "hund", then there were two branches of words for "dog", and we picked the other one. But "canis" and "hund" are the same word.

Indo-European "kwon-" led to Greek "kuon", which in turn led to Latin "canis". That lineage, I think, is clear enough. From the Latin form we got "canine", referring not only to things doglike but also things dental, because the canine teeth, aka the cuspids (so called because they're pointed, which is to say cusped/cusp├ęd/cuspid), are longer and sharper than the others and look like a dog's teeth. We also got "kennel", where we keep dogs, and, unexpectedly, "cynic" (direct from Greek "kynikos"), because a cynic is a cur--someone motivated by selfishness and not altruism.

But there was a shifting of sound in Germanic languages from a hard "k-" to an aspirated "h-" (part of Grimm's Law), and so IE "kwon-" would be something closer to "huon-" or "hon-", and this is the source of the "hound" words in such languages as Dutch "hond", Icelandic "hunds", and Danish "hundur".

You would never, ever think, just by looking at them, that "canine" and "hound" could have anything in common, and yet all it takes is a very simple consonantal shift and a few hundreds of years of evolution.


Blogger kusala ~ joe said...

I've often wondered about dog & hund & canis, and never knew about the k > hw sound shift. I need to read up more on Grimm's Law. Thanks for this.

The fact that linguists can't nail down the origin of "dog" is incredibly interesting to me.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007 1:04:00 PM  

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