Thursday, July 18

Where Words Come From

Words are funny things. We use them on a daily basis, and as far as we can remember they have always been there, meaning that they seem incredibly natural to us (which is, oddly enough, one of the reasons learning a foreign language feels so unnatural. I mean, what do you mean ‘dog’ is ‘perro’, that makes no sense! A dog is a dog, end of story, and breaking that association so that both words feel equally natural in our minds is all but impossible). Sure, from a rational perspective we know that is not the case. We know language makes no sense, which explains why we are stuck with so many of the blasted things, and we have all seen babies learning to talk, but words are so integral to the way we think that it is all but impossible for us to conceive a world without them… and yet languages are ever changing. They have a past, they have a history. They are a testament to old wars and old conquests. They interbreed. They also sometimes give birth to some things most would describe as inbred monstrosities, but that is a different story.

Let’s take English as our example.

While words of Celtic origin are few and far between in English, it is sometimes hard to keep track as to whether those with Latin roots came with the Romans or with the French-speaking Normans (though keep in mind that medieval French was about as close to modern French as Old English is to modern English). To that we must also add the fact that the Angles and the Saxons (who migrated in the fifth century) and the Danes (who came some five hundred years later) all spoke Germanic languages (though the languages of both Angles and Saxons was West Germanic in origin and at the time they were both close enough to their source as to be all but indistinguishable from each other, while the Danes favored a North Germanic flavor that had been going its own way for half a millennium), and the end result is a linguistic melting pot that gave rise to that delightful bit of nonsense known as the English language… not that the English language is any more nonsensical than any other.

In fact, if you ask me for my favorite, perfectly ordinary, word that makes no sense at all, the winner of that particular contest wouldn’t be one derived from the English language, it would be derived from French: aujourd’hui, the French word for today which not only features an apostrophe where no self respecting apostrophe should be, but literally means ‘on the day of today’… which is about as awkward a turn of phrase as you can think of to say something as simple as ‘today’, the question is why? Why would a language do something like that to itself, especially with such an ordinary and inescapable word? And the reason is simple: if you want to get technical, the French word for today shouldn’t be aujourd’hui, it should be, quite simply, ‘hui’, a word that is perfectly consistent with the word ‘hoy’, which means ‘today’ in Spanish, ‘heute’ which means ‘today’ in German, and ‘oggi’ which means ‘today’ in Italian, to name but a few. In fact the problem is not so much with the word for today, but with the one meaning ‘yes’ (and that would be ‘ja’ in German, and ‘si’ in both Spanish and Italian, if you are keeping track). As you probably already know, in French that word is ‘oui’, but where the heck did we get ‘oui’ from in the first place?

Yes, etymologically there is no getting around the fact that ‘oui’ is an anomaly, though if you want to get technical, there is a somewhat reasonable explanation for that one. ‘Oui’ is derived from the Latin hoc ille, which was first shortened to oc ill, then to oill/ouill, and finally to oui, and if you are wondering why, why, WHY would the French do that to themselves? The answer is even more nonsensical, as it goes back to the fact that there was no such a thing as a word meaning ‘yes’ in Latin, not quite. What they had was a number of expressions that conveyed that particular meaning.

Yes, you read that right. Anyway that tiny oversight left the Romance languages basically to fend for themselves when, after coming into contact with the Gemanic barbarians, they realized that having a word that meant simply ‘yes’ was a rather nifty idea, and tried to fill in that gap as best they could. The end result was that different dialects/languages wound up deriving theirs from different expressions. For the French, as I mentioned before, that expression was hoc ille, which translates into ‘this is it’, for most other Romance languages the top choice was sic est, which translates roughly into ‘it is thus’. But let’s go back to today.

The thing is that ‘hui’ and ‘oui’ are homophones, meaning that they are pronounced in the exact same way, and having the word for ‘yes’ be indistinguishable from the word for ‘today’ was a recipe for disaster, especially in a world in which literacy was not the norm. Sure, nowadays we may take writing for granted, but remember that up to the mid eighteen century (and while this may sound like ancient history to you, it is not that far as far as the language is concerned) the literacy rate in France had been reasonably steady for close to a hundred years, hovering around the thirty percent mark. In other words, for the vast majority of the population the fact that the words ‘hui’ and ‘oui’ were written differently meant diddly-squat. The end result? That delightful bit of nonsense that is the word aujourd’hui… not that the French have a monopoly on words that don’t make sense, after all, no matter how much butter you slather on a poor, hapless, fly you will not get it to turn into a butterfly.

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