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world wide wednesdays :: this is why the ducks have been keeping me up at night

baby. bébé. baby. bebé. bambino.
my adventures in learning new languages have led me to think about the connections that those different languages, and therefore different cultures, have. the ones that i'm studying are all from areas in close proximity to one another, from cultures whose boundaries have always been somewhat fluid.

for those of you who might have missed my post on the subject, i started studying german and spanish late last year, which allowed me to make a new year's resolution to learn more languages, because, having already started, i couldn't possibly end up in a situation where i hadn't learned at least a little bit. i'm using the same program- duolingo, which i highly recommend- to get my french to a higher level and, after consulting the hive mind of facebook and twitter to choose the next language for me to start, i've made some tentative steps into the world of italian.

these are all related languages, in the broadest sense. they are all part of the giant indo-european family, which includes all of the major european languages, from english to spanish to russian, but which also includes hindi, kurdish, farsi and sinhalese. all those languages are under the same umbrella and can be traced back to an original single language. sort of.

we don't know what that single language was, because the people who spoke it never wrote it down. but we know it existed, because its fingerprints are found throughout modern languages, where we see similar words across many of the "family members". words are developed as they're needed, so it's no surprise that words whose origins trace back to the lost language of the indo-european people are ones that relate to some of the most basic and common things in our lives. for instance, the thing in the centre of your face. it's your nose [english], nez [french], nase [german], nos [russian], or nās [sanskrit]. or the person who gave birth to you: your mother [english], moeder [dutch], meter [greek], madre [spanish], mayr [armenian] or mādar [persian/ farsi]. given that these are things that everyone has, it makes sense that they are words that were present when our ur-language was born. other words that are similar, like "month" tell us things about that early culture, like the fact that they were aware of lunar cycles. and probably menstrual ones.

boy. garçon. junge. hijo. ragazzo.
as parts of the original group moved outward from their original home in asia minor, eastward and westward, north and south, things started to separate and show differences, to the point where there are now nearly 450 indo-european languages in many different subgroups. but when it comes to europe, it's a smallish place and almost all the languages belong to one of the three big subgroups: romance [meaning descended from the romans, although they are found in some of the most romantic places on earth], germanic [central and northern europe] and slavic [eastern europe, including russia and most of the balkan states]. [side note :: interestingly, while many roman words trace their origins to the language of ancient greece, modern greek is unrelated. it is indo-european, but constitutes the sole member of the "hellenic" subgroup.]

i haven't yet added a slavic language to my learning repertoire. friends who've done it [or attempted it] have told me it's very tough*. as an english speaker, it's much easier to rise to the challenge of a germanic or romance language, because english is a germanic language with a significant influence from a romance languages. plus i'm an english speaker with a solid grounding in french, which should make the learning process even easier. [note :: english is actually way more complicated, which was the subject of a previous www post. but even beyond that, the germanic influence in england is from two different sources: the germanic angle and saxon tribes, yes, but also the danish vikings, who contributed some very nordic looking words, spoke a germanic language [and still do]. likewise the normans came from france, but their particular version of french was heavily influenced by german and quite different from the languages of the more southerly kingdoms of aquitaine, burgundy and savoy. plus there's the fact that there were different celtic tribes there; celtic being an smaller but entirely different branch of the indo-european tree, on the same level of differentiation as romance and germanic languages.]

so to bring this back to me [because we haven't talked about me enough in this post], i am currently studying two germanic languages: german and english [which are actually both part of the further sub-category of western germanic languages, distinct from the northern germanic dialects of scandinavia]; and three romance languages: french, spanish and italian.

colourful. coloré. bunte. vistoso. colorato.
all have some words [nose, mother, night] that clearly share a common root. those are the things that were important before the tribes split off. other words can tell you something about what was happening in the various areas of the world, what was shared and what was different. cats [chats- french, katzen- german, gatti- italian, gatos- spanish] were shared early. dogs [chiens- french, hünde- german, cani- italian, perros- spanish] evidently came later. at least the domestic dogs came later. awareness of the wolf must have come near the time when the germanic and romance languages split: wolf [english and german] vs. lupo [italian], loup [french] and lobo [spanish]. but at some point after these five nations [although they weren't nations in any sense until considerably later] drifted apart, they all separately discovered the notion of domesticating members of the family. the canine family, which is the latin name and is one of the many instances where you can see the closer relationship of latin to italian than to other romance languages.

other words are hard to reconcile. like apple. english "apple" and german "apfel" are obviously from the same root. but no one knows what that root is. they know it must me damned old, because there are words in the baltic family of languages [another indo-european group] that are similar, as is the old norse word, which would indicate that the term had developed before the two germanic branches split.

so how did the romance languages end up with mela [italian], pomme [french] and manzana [spanish]. "mela" is clearly derived from the latin "malus", which is still the "technical" name for the apple. but where the hell did that come from? does that mean that apples were a northern european thing only? no, they weren't. they're generally thought to have originated in central asia and to have been brought to europe by alexander the great after he found them in turkey. so if they entered through the southern part of the continent, you'd expect the words from that area to be older and therefore similar. but it's the opposite. [side note :: i thought that "manzana" might be one of the many spanish words that were inherited from arabic. but it isn't. also, the french term looks like it's more closely related to the germanic root than the latin one, but that's not entirely surprising. french may be a romance language, but centuries of muddled central european borders mean that there are parts of the two that are remarkably similar.]

and that's where the ducks come in.

i mean, the ducks came in a long, long time ago. they're in every corner of the world and would have been plentiful all over europe before the indo-europeans arrived. and they would have been plentiful in the lands from which the indo-europeans arrived. ducks are not a new thing. and yet...

hat. chapeau. hut. sombrero. capello.
english :: duck
german :: ente
french :: canard
spanish :: pato
italian :: anatra

i mean, none of those words is even remotely close to the others. as with "apple", you can see a link between the italian and the latin "anatidae". but if we go with the theory that people find words for things as they need them, it seems like no one bothered to say anything about the ducks until really the last fifteen hundred years or so. and that might sound like a long time, but it's nothing compared to the length of time that humans and ducks have been coexisting. didn't anyone ever think to mention the ducks?

the english name may be related to an older norse/ germanic word for "diver". that's fine, but the norse and the germans don't use the word "diver" when they mean "duck". they use the word that means "duck". there is a theory that the early form of "duck" was adopted to avoid confusion with other words that sounded similar to the germanic "ente". thank god there have never been any english words that sounded like "duck" to confuse us.

and yes, the words for dog are all different, but there we're talking about something that had to be domesticated. that took time. the ducks were just there. now i have to learn five words for "duck", most of which will never be used outside this blog post, because apparently no one in western europe was willing to admit the feathered buggers existed until everyone had their own distinct language.

this is the sort of thing that i ponder, while i'm in the grips of insomnia: why did my ancestors take so long to acknowledge the ducks?

*now that i think of it, the people who told me that are the same people who told me that italian would probably be easy for me to learn since i already had a knowledge of french and a little spanish. lies. sure, some of the words look similar, but italian grammar is like being trapped in a giallo film for an anglophone. and on top of that, a lot of italian words are exactly the same as the spanish ones, with one letter changed [yo/ io, fruta/ frutta, gato/ gatto, scribe/ scrive]. that's just mean. 


as long as you're here, why not read more?


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