By Ana López Usó,
Words are carriers of meaning. Pronouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs and nouns are used to define, assure, promise, make commands, express ideas and feelings etc. However, if we take a closer look, there is much more that words can tell us.
Linguistics is the science that studies language, and deals with the analysis of language form, language meaning and language in context. Nevertheless, linguistics has also uncovered the relationship between language and the social, political, cultural and historical factors that have influenced the function of language as we know it today. Differences inlanguage can tell us when the speakers of certain languages departed from each other, where they went, and the kind of lifestyle they had there. Through linguistics we discover that language is not only a vehicle of meaning, but also a very vivid account of history. A vast amount of information about our past is inscribed in the content and structure of the languages that are spoken today, and the words we use every day are a direct product of historical events.
For example, modern English presents a varied vocabulary about animals. However, if we pay close attention, we can perceive a constant difference between living animals and animal meat that has been prepared for eating. Animals like ‘pig’ becomes ‘pork’, ‘cow’ becomes ‘beef’ and ‘sheep’ turns to ‘mutton’. This pattern is not a coincidence. These differences in vocabulary date back to the Norman Conquest of the British Isles. In 1066, Norman people took over Britain and William the Conqueror was established as the first Norman monarch of England. Since that moment on, the royal court and the higher classes of English society established Norman French as their language, leaving the previously spoken Anglo-Saxon to the English peasants. This way, the words used for animals that were cared by farmers, have Anglo-Saxon origins, while the words for cooked meat, which was normally enjoyed only by the upper classes can be traced back to the French language. For example, pork comes from the French word porc, cow turned into boeuf (later beef), and sheep became mouton, (later adapted to mutton).
Etymology is the tool used to trace the origin of words by analysing the history and development of a language. Etymology follows the journey that a word has taken to become what it is today, and through this, language becomes one of the best depictions of history.
For example, the Spanish language -despite being a Romance language originating from Latin- presents plenty of words coming from Arabic, due to the Muslim domination of a great part of the Iberian Peninsula for eight centuries. The most obvious examples are the words starting with Al, which corresponds to the article in Arabic. There is a vast number of words with such a beginning in Spanish, such as “Alcohol”, “Alquiler” (rent), “Alcalde” (mayor) “Alfombra” (carpet), “Albahaca” (basil), “Alcachofa” (artichoke), “Alquería” (farmhouse), but also towns (Algeciras, Almería, Alicante…), and even what now are common Spanish surnames (Almarcha, Alamilla, Albarrán…)
Another example of language as account of history are borrowings. Linguistics can go as far as to determine the geographical origins and lifestyles of native people based on which words were native and which were borrowed. Borrowings, words that have been taken from a language and incorporated to another one, are usually the result of contact between the people of such languages.
Nowadays, with English being the most globalised language (743 million non-native speakers in the world), many words are being taken from English and incorporated into other languages, mostly related to the topic of technology. However, the process of borrowing terms of other languages and incorporating them to our own is not new. If we analyse Modern Greek for example, despite Ancient Greek being one of the biggest influences in regards to the creation of multiple languages, we come across many words that come from Italian, like βόλτα (volta) meaning stroll; ινκόγκνιτο meaning incognito; γούστο (gusto) meaning taste; μπράβο (Bravo), etc. that date back to the period of Venetian occupation of Greek lands.
If we listen carefully, we can hear the history of the languages we speak through the words we use every day. We can hear words from different origins, that were spoken by different people throughout several times and places. The languages we speak are living entities depicting the historical changes that have contributed to the construction of humanity as it is today.
As the journalist Stan Grant states: “Language tells us not just who we are but where we are.” And I would add, how we got there. From now on, listen closely to the languages you speak. What do they have to say?
- TED-ED. How did English evolve? By Kate Gardoqui. Availble here.
- THE SAN DIEGO UNION-TRIBUNE. Why Is Pig Meat Called ‘Pork,’ and Cow Meat Called ‘Beef’?. Available here.
- THE GUARDIAN. If language tells us who we are, then who am I?. Available here.