Spring Fundraiser 2012, Day Six
So here we are at Day 6 already in our quarterly fund-raising effort. Just one more post from Dymphna, and one from me for the wrap-up, and then these annoying interruptions will be over until the dog days of summer.
We’ve seen a number of Widows’ Mites this bleg: a lot of people giving a modest amount each. Perhaps it’s a sign that times are lean. In any case, it’s gratifying that people are willing to stretch their budgets to help out.
Our theme this quarter is Diversity, as you probably already noticed. My tack has been to take a look at various kinds of diversity that I actually enjoy celebrating — as opposed to the orthodox diversity I’m supposed to celebrate, but which never leaves me in a very celebratory mood.
Tonight I’ll celebrate a topic close to my heart: the diversity of dialects and languages. For almost fifty years one of my main hobbies has been etymology and linguistics. Since I’m a Eurocentric white guy, the Indo-European languages remain my chosen specialty. Starting from the English language and tracking back through the history of words leads one through most of the languages of Europe, plus some in the Caucasus, Central Asia, and the Indian subcontinent. There are a few oddball tongues in Europe, such as Basque, Estonian, Hungarian, and Finnish — the last dubbed “Klingon” by Vlad — but the others are all cousins to English, and their family relationship to my native tongue is discernable to varying degrees.
When you start tracking down the origins of any given word, in most cases you will eventually find yourself back in Proto-Indo-European, the reconstructed hypothetical mother tongue of the entire family. The funny thing is that a lot of the diversity disappears at that point. Of necessity, many words are cognate with one another and derive from a common ancestor, since the size of the vocabulary of our steppe-dwelling ancestors was only a tiny fraction of ours.
For example, a huge constellation of words common to most Indo-European languages is derived from a single root in the ancestral tongue beginning with sta-. The sense of the original had something to do with having a fixed position and being permanent. Derivative words include stand, stay, stead, stop, staunch, state, stable, steady, stalwart, stanchion, staple, stable, and many others. So much diversity from a single source!
Then there’s the interesting topic of sound changes in English, such as the Great Vowel Shift, which is shown in the diagram at the top of this post. It took place from the 15th through the 17th century, and helps explain some of the perplexing inconsistencies of modern English spelling.
Consonantal shifts also follow certain patterns, with b, p, pf, f, v, and w being interchangeable under certain sets of rules across different languages and dialects. S, t, and d behave in a similar fashion.
There is a strange correspondence between s and h in certain languages. To an English-speaker the relationship makes no sense, yet one sees it frequently. Consider Greek roots such as hex (six), hept (seven), hyper (above), and hypo (below), and compare them with their Latin cousins sex, sept, super, and sub. In the Indian subcontinent we see the same phenomenon at work in Hindi (the language) and Sind (the province), which derive from the same place name.
For a fascinating series of cognates, look at various words meaning “water” (or compound words built from the same root). The list includes wet, water, wasser, vand, eau, agua, aqua, hydro, vodka, and whiskey, just to name a handful. All related, and yet so different.
So many other linguistic examples have stuffed themselves into my head over the decades. Stuff! There’s another sta- word…
I could go on, but bedtime looms.
Yesterday’s donors checked in from these linguistically diverse places:
Stateside: California, Florida, Minnesota, New York, N. Carolina, and Pennsylvania
Near Abroad: Canada
Far Abroad: Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, Norway, and the UK
Thank you all very much. See you tomorrow — or rather, later today…
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