Anything goes Friday: I love etymology

04 Apr

As promised last Friday, here is my post on etymology.

Have you ever thought about how weird language is? It becomes especially obvious when you speak more then one language, and the languages in question are wildly different. In my case, those would be French and English.
Take the word “green”. Simple enough, right? I say that word, and you think of the color, and unless you are among the 2.5% of the population who are color-blind, you’re going to think of a color that’s at least similar to the one I’m thinking of. Did you ever wonder why we call this color “green”?
Tracing back through Middle English and Old English and Proto-German and even Proto-Indo-European, it is linked to the root of the word “grow”. Which makes sense; a lot of things that grow are green (plants, flowers, tree leaves, moss, etc.) and vice-versa. In French, however, the color is called “vert”, which can be traced back to the Latin word for “fresh”, and/or “vigorous”. What I find really interesting is that the reason French (and Spanish and Italian) draw so heavily from the Latin is the fact that the Romans invaded, and remained there for centuries. Yet the Romans were also in England for centuries, six of them to be exact, and almost no Latin roots can be found in the modern English language.
And think about the Celts. They occupied a pretty large portion of Europe, including both France and England, for at least as much time as the Romans did, and yet what trace is there of the Celtic influence in either language? Nothing, unless you count the math.
If you count up to 20, you see that each number is described by a different word. 21, on the other hand, is written in two words: twenty (20), and one (1). Only to more you think about it, the less it makes sense. We use Arabic numerals, we count on a base of ten, why is eleven even a word? Logically, 11 should be ten-one, the same way 21 is twenty-one. Who counts on a base of twenty?
The Celts, of course. In the Celtic language, 30 is twenty-ten, 40 is two-twenty, 50 is two-twenty-ten, 60 is three-twenty, 70 is three-twenty-ten, 80 is four-twenty, 90 is four-twenty-ten. And while that bit of counting was lost to the practicalities of modern mathematics, the individual names of numbers from one to twenty remain.
And in French, the link is even more obvious. Number from one to sixteen have their own name (it’s possible that 17, 18 and 19 also all had their names, but their are now ten-seven, ten-eight and ten-nine) AND the numbers between 60 and 100 are counted on a base of 20. 71 is sixty-ten-one, 83 is four-twenty-three, 95 is four-twenty-fifteen.
Isn’t this all amazing?! And what’s even more amazing is that France and England are really close to each other, they shared so much cultural background, and yet they developed languages so completely different from each other.
(It might have something to do with the fact that they spent over 500 years actively at war with each other, but that’s a story for another day.)

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Posted by on April 4, 2014 in Uncategorized


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