Wednesday, July 09, 2008

The History of the English Word Water: Part Three

The History of the English Word Water
Daniel Sanford


One other thing that we know about the Indo-Europeans: we know that they didn’t stay in the Ukraine. Horses, wheels, and agriculture is a pretty potent cultural combination in the world of 4,000 BC (it’s still the Neolithic throughout Europe, and far off in the most civilized part of the world, Sumeria and Egypt are just getting started at this time- the world is not a technologically sophisticated place). The Indo-Europeans took their culture, technology, religion, and language, and they moved. All over. And everywhere they went, their language became the dominant language of the region, replacing languages and language families which had previously existed in the region (unless, of course, there are places that they moved to in which PIE died out- if this happened, we of course wouldn’t know about it). PIE language splits off into dialects, and eventually languages, as groups lost contact with one another.

As a result, the English word water has relatives all over. We looked last time at a few of the Germanic ones, but there are many, many more. A few of these have stumbled over into English, some in amusing ways, despite our already having a word with the same origin. Among the Indo-Europeans who headed down to Greece, wodor developed into hudor, which English speakers borrowed back as hydro-, as in hydrodynamics or hydroponics. In the Slavic group, we see many words along the lines of woda and voda, all related (or, really, all the same word). In Russian, a diminutive ending was added to make a word that English speakers promptly borrowed: vodka, or ‘little water.’ Something similar happened with Gaelic uisge, from the same root (the Celts being the West-most of the Indo-Europeans). Uisge beatha, or ‘water of life’, was shorted to uisge and then borrowed into English as whiskey.

Another group of Indo-Europeans headed South, then split: one group headed into the Middle East, becoming the Persians (where their name for themselves- aran, or ‘noble’- is recognizable in Iran). Another, which headed into Northern India, were known as the Aryan invaders whose religious practices merged with those of the older, Dravidic population (still present, and speaking Dravidic languages, in Southern India) to form Hinduism. The words for water in these languages look a bit different. It’s been suggested that there were two roots corresponding to water in Indo-European, one which stressed water as a living, animate, thing (or, perhaps, deity), and one which labeled water as an everyday, inanimate substance. The former was ap-, the latter wod-. While languages like Hindi and Farsi are a part of the same language family, Indo-European, the words for water in these languages are descended from ap-, not wod-.

The Indo-Europeans who headed to Italy became speakers of Italic, out of which developed Latin. Latin kept wod-, as unda, but its meaning shifted over to mean ‘wave’ (another water cousin that we borrowed in English, as undulate). For ‘water’, they used what was apparently yet another word referring to water (or, it’s been suggested, a related concept, such as ‘drink’): akwa. It’s this word that became the word for ‘water’ in languages like Italian, Spanish, and French that developed out of Latin (acqua, agua, and eau, respectively). But, English has vestiges of this root as well: for example, our word island is from an older form ag-land, or ‘water-land’, which uses a root descended from akwa.

Language, on the surface, can seem like a barrier between cultures. A deeper look, however, illustrates the connections that language can evidence even as it conceals them. Even among groups with no memory of their common cultural origins, the shared use of words such as water, the same across related languages despite variations in form, belie a unity and sameness far deeper than language differences might suggest.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Good for people to know.

12:32 AM  

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