Monday, July 07, 2008

The History of the English Word Water: Part One

The History of the English Word Water

by Daniel Sanford


The word that we know in English as water has a long, rich history, far predating the English language. Tracing it backwards, we can follow it as far back as the earliest ancestor of English of which we’re shakily (if that) aware. Following the history of the word forward from that point, we can see its dissemination into the many languages and languages families that English is related to. Patterns of connections between the English word water and related words in other languages reflect the history of a language family that stretches back 6000 years.

It’s not surprising for water to have such a long history, because it’s so basic to life (and therefore, of course, to humans). Words that persist in a language tend to be those that correspond to phenomena that are basic to a people’s experience. For such concepts, we don’t see as much ‘borrowing’ between languages as we do for more culture-specific things like foods, ideas, and specific ways of thinking about the world (the persistence, in languages, of the ‘basic vocabulary’ that labels these ideas is so dependable that we often use the number of shared basic vocabulary items as a diagnostic of how closely related two languages are). Water is a word that the speakers of all the languages ancestral to English never stopped using, that was never replaced with a word borrowed from another language or a word from within English with a similar meaning. Nor is it especially likely to be, for as far forward as English, and whatever languages English gives rise to, is spoken.

English began its career as the language of the Anglo-Saxons, the name that’s come to be applied to Germanic people who arrived in Britain around 450 AD (as the Roman Empire was in the process of falling apart) and ruled the island until the Battle of Hastings, in 1066. In 450, there was no English language: the Germanic peoples that showed up in the British isles around that time would have been speakers of West Germanic. With time, however, their complete linguistic isolation from the mainland would have created a new dialect of West Germanic, and finally a new language, unintelligible to West Germanic people on the mainland: English. This language came to largely replace the languages previously spoken in the British Isles: today the few remaining speakers of Irish, Welsh, and Scottish Gaelic (as well as Breton, on the mainland) are the last holdouts of the Celtic language family, which once covered all of the British Isles and large portions of western Europe.

The oldest surviving occurrence, in writing, of the English word water dates from about 450 years after the Anglo-Saxons arrived, as wættrewæter, if we change it to the nominative case (that symbol is called an ash, and the vowel’s sound matches that of the vowel in ash).

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Anonymous Anonymous said...


3:54 PM  
Blogger f2mel2 said...

Voda is the Russian word for water. They lifted it from the Brits???

7:26 PM  

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