Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Etymology of Water

History of the English Word Water
by Daniel Sanford


‘West Germanic’ labels one group of the Germanic language family: all of the languages that descend from Germanic (called Proto-Germanic, because while we know that the language existed, and we know a great deal about it based on the properties of its daughter languages, we have no direct access to the language itself). By the time the Anglo Saxons got on ships for Britain, Germanic had spread to much of its current distribution, with speakers ranging over what is today Southern Norway and Finland, Denmark, Northern Germany, Belgium, and the Netherlands. In the language of the original Germanic people, focused around the very northern edge of Denmark and across the way on the southern rim of the Scandinavian Peninsula the word for water would have looked something along the lines of wadar. Every Germanic language has a related word. A couple of examples: in Old High German wadar become wazzar, eventually becoming today’s German wasser. Further North, in Old Norse, the word became vater, and eventually Norwegian vann, while old Swedish watar became today’s vatten. In Old Frankish the word became weder, which in Denmark is now vand. These are all, essentially, the same word as English water, arising from the single Germanic word wadar.

Germanic is itself, however, just one branch of a bigger family. The people who would become speakers of Germanic arrived in Sweden and Denmark sometime around, or a bit before, 2500 BC (about the same time that the first pyramids were being built in Egypt). When they showed up, they were speakers of a dialect of Indo-European (or, more accurately, Proto-Indo-European).

There’s a lot that we don’t know about the Indo-Europeans, but there is a surprising amount that we do know, given the fact that they didn’t leave much in terms of archaeological remains (or at least, not remains that can be positively attributed to them). It’s a reasonable guess that the Indo-Europeans started out somewhere around the area of the Ukraine in 4000 BC. We know, based on words of theirs that survived into Indo-European’s daughter languages, that they had domesticated dogs and horses, some sort of wheeled vehicle, cereal agriculture, a paternalistic culture, and a pantheon of gods headed up by a “Sky Father” (something like Dyaus Phatr, they called him- from which the Greeks got Zeus Pater, and the Romans got Jupiter).

The root of their word for water (or at least, one of them- we’ll look next time at the possibility that there was more than one) looked something like wod-, or perhaps wed-. The root by itself just meant ‘something wet’, but adding a suffix— -n or –r— made it into ‘water’.

What came before Indo-European? Tough to say. Language leaves rotten fossils, and 6,500 years is pushing it as far as our ability to figure out language histories goes. One thing that’s important to note, though, is that Proto-Indo-European (PIE) was just one small language in a very big, very linguistically diverse world.


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