Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Rose by Any Other Name...

We’re all aware that language evolves, right?
Somewhere in school - probably in an English class - the teacher gave us a glimpse at that evolution. Language in Europe and Asia started from an unknown Indo-European language that split into other languages, including Germanic and Latin. Latin developed into French, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese. That was all we heard about the ‘Romance Languages’.
That teacher spent much more time on the Germanic tongue. I remember she mentioned High German and Low German, though I don’t remember what the difference was. As I remember it, the Low German used in the British Isles became Old English, then Middle English, and eventually, something that resembled the English we speak today. To emphasize how much the English language had changed, she had us students read The Canterbury Tales - in the original (Old? Middle? I don’t remember).
It seemed hopeless, but I tried. If I was lucky, I might have seen 1 word out of 10 that possibly bore some semblance to a modern word, although the meaning had probably changed. Our ‘reading’ of the Tales was more of her translating to us.
This past week, I read an article that asserted that at least 23 words had traveled down through the various versions of language relatively unchanged for the past 15,000 years. I read the article twice to be sure I understood what they were saying: A core vocabulary has remained fairly unchanged from the original Indo-European, and sound remarkably similar in the various regional languages in that area today.
This list includes thou (you), I, not, that, we, who, man, mother, and hand. These are words that would have been used all the time, no matter what time period a person lived in. But as cave-dwellers became farmers, they would have needed new words to describe the soil, the plants and what they were doing with them. And so on until man’s vocabulary became full of ebooks, cyberspace and so on.
A few words that appeared on this basic vocabulary list did surprise the researchers, and one was bark (of a tree). It’s not a word we use incredibly often today, and those not constantly used are the ones that change. Anthropologists explained that 10-15,000 years ago, tree bark would have been extremely important; people would have talked about it all the time.
So, words change over time. It makes me wonder what a rose would have been called way back when. Maybe some sound combination that roughly translates into “pretty thing that stings”?

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