Online Etymological Dictionary
Indo-European language family tree
Let’s look at another etymology here, this time of a similar word.
We started with the word ‘word’, so how about the word ‘language’?
So Online Etymological Dictionary, one of my favourite sites.
Type the word ‘language’.
Now here we get the search results page.
You can already see ‘language’ is already there, so you can simply read it off here, but I’m going to click here to get to the main entry page.
So here we go.
From langage, originally without the u, from Old French.
So here we get to one of the other major sources of the English language.
One is Old English, like we saw with the word ‘word’.
Old English, the earlier form of English.
But the other major source is Old French.
Because with the French conquest of England a thousand years ago, a whole world of French words were brought into the language.
And this is one of them.
This is like the main division in English vocabulary is between there’s this core vocabulary of Old English words, but then there’s this whole layer of French words that are added on top.
And often you see the more simple, common, homely words tend to be from Old English.
They remain the same.
Even after the French conquest, those words persisted.
But at the level of maybe more abstract things, more grander social things, things like related to politics, business, government, and so on, those tended to be brought in French, French terms taken over.
So it was like you know you might speak English at home, Old English, but then it would be more like you’re speaking French in the world of politics and business.
So those kind of words ended up taking over with French.
And then these languages merge together.
So if you start studying word history, you’ll start to notice that really the the nature of English is really divided according to these two core are they these two basic sources of words.
And this one, this word, just like the word ‘word’, that used to refer to the idea of language, and that’s an Old English core word.
But this word ‘language’, now this comes from French.
So there might have been a time when the word ‘word’ that was like your normal, homey way to say the word to talk about language, but then if you said ‘language’, like oo, fancy, you know, you’re being fancy, you’re using the French term ‘language’, you know, and like this kind of like elevated kind of a way of describing the same thing.
Of course, now that connotation is long gone, and language is just a completely ordinary English word.
But still, at some level, there is this division within the English vocabulary.
So here you can see it has the same meaning as essentially the the word ‘word’, although interesting to see that often you can find related meanings that are not what you’d expect.
A tribe, a people, a nation.
So of course the connection between language and a nation is very strong.
And so one way of describing a people is by their shared language.
Now just like with all these etymological traces, we’re tracing from the present to the past.
So we start with Old French, but then it goes where does Old French come from?
It comes from Latin.
OK, so this is the later form of Latin, the Latin of the people, Vulgar Latin.
Sounds like it’s referring to, you know, curse words and so on.
But this is just the you could say the lower or later form of Latin spoken by the people throughout the Roman Empire.
So this is a step after Classical Latin, which would say is called Latin.
But these languages are you could even say like different stages of the same language.
You can argue about exactly where the differences are, but I usually just call this Latin.
Now here you have a later form of Latin and earlier form of Latin.
So here we have, OK, language.
OK, this comes from linguaticum.
OK, that’s starting to sound more Latin there.
Coming from lingua.
And here’s where we get into the deeper layer of this word, because lingua means tongue.
So now that’s where you get that kind of deeper layer of really understanding the source of this word.
The word that we call language comes from the word meaning tongue.
Well, that makes perfect sense, that you know, a tongue is, when it comes to producing language sounds, the most important part of our body is the tongue, and so we can sort of use, you know, by extension.
And there’s so many examples of this kind of meaning shifting and meaning extension, where the idea that OK, we make language with our tongue, therefore we can even call language tongue itself.
And here it suggests that even in Latin, this connection between the idea of a tongue and a language, that connection was already there even 2000 years ago in Latin.
So this is now going up the tree.
Now we looked at the Indo-European family tree before.
So coming from English up Germanic to the European branch, but also you can go here.
And you can draw French up the tree to what they call Romance.
And this Romance branch, there’s Romance refers to Roman, which is the Roman Empire, whose language was Latin.
So this refers to the Latin branch of the tree.
So this branch is the ancestor language of all the Latin languages, and that’s the Romance branch.
And then that branch eventually joins the Germanic branch further up the tree.
So here you see, just like you can find relatives and then, you know, see how closely related they are, you know, what degree of cousins they are, it’s the same with languages.
That we have English and we have French, very different languages, but if you trace it back, French back to Latin, English back to Proto-Germanic, then those two languages you could say are sisters, and they eventually connect together at this European branch of the Indo-European language family.
And there’s still some debate about exact classification and exactly, you know, what counts as a generation of a language, because these languages are kind of changing and separating and so on in ways that are difficult to precisely define.
You could say, well, it’s clear that you’re born and you know you’re clearly a separate person when you’re born, etc.
For languages, this metaphor of the family tree doesn’t perfectly apply.
But there is, you know, in some way, like this, the earlier form of the tree, the earlier, the trunk, the deeper branch of the tree that was an earlier form of the language, it was a shared ancestor that then split at some point.
And then those descendant languages, they also split.
So you can look at it like a tree.
So for this word, we’re tracing from French up to Latin, or here called romance, and back up to this Indo-European root.
And now, when we find these roots, we get the roots that share, that have shared ancestry of for all these different languages.
And that’s what’s truly astounding to think about how many different words from so many different languages go back to the same root.
So let’s look at this one.
And here we see one that is not particularly easy to pronounce we have dnghu.
Still a lot of debate about exactly how these words are pronounced, or what in fact they are.
And these words are reconstructed, based on taking a whole bunch of different descendant languages and sort of rewinding all the different sound changes that would have happened to try to find some kind of common ancestor that could possibly be the source of all those different sound changes.
And so often what we get with the Indo-European root is a word that looks quite difficult to pronounce.
And certainly we can imagine that there were some other vowels, there were some other possible ways that this could somehow be pronounced, and that these words are not even, these letters are not even necessarily exact.
That’s why we have this star here, the star meaning that this form does not actually exist.
It’s not known to exist.
It’s not attested in any way.
It’s simply reconstructed.
And we imagine that it’s most likely to be true, based on simply the pattern of the descendant languages can only be reconstructed using languages that are known, the future descendant languages, they’re used to try to reconstruct this earlier language.
So for this word, we have dnghu, and this means tongue.
So it’s looking very different.
We have that kind of ng sound, the ng, but there’s no l.
Instead there’s a d.
And then the h and the u there, that’s a little bit different.
We can click on this root, and that’s where we get down, down to the basics, down to the trunk of the tree, down to where the words come from.
This root means tongue, and of course you can see these different words all related to language, lang, or ling, all comes from this.
So at some point there was a change from a d to an l.
And here we have this idea of old Latin dingua.
So instead of language you could say it’s danguage.
OK, so now that’s really going back far into the past.
But you know, at some point there appears to have been a change between d and l.
So a lot of surprising letters can change as people are saying these words over and over again over centuries, you know, these changes can start to creep in, and over time this is how we get all the different languages.
So but if we imagine that there were, it was originally a d in the Latin language, the d changed l, so that’s how we get all the lang and the ling.
We get lingual, language, linguistics.
We get all these forms.
But we also have the word tongue, the tongue.
That t is close to a d, so it’s easy to see how dang would become tongue.
So that so if you look at it that way, then you think, well, even the word language and the word tongue itself are also related words.
you have dnghu becoming lang and you have dnghu becoming tongue.
And so if you trace it back far enough, those words are themselves related.
And you know, when here you can look at some other languages in the European branch of Indo-European that also have, you can see that they have similarity in a regular way that can be traced back to this same root.
So you have Old Irish tenge, Welsh tafod, Lithuanian liežuvis, Slavonic jezyku.
And tunge, of course.
There’s the Old English word tunge, which means tongue, but also speech or language.
So often what you see is like you have these multiple streams where words can sort of separate but then often they converge.
So we have these different words meaning tongue or language, and they both started with this same root meaning tongue, but even in the English branch, so down the English branch of the tree, we have a word meaning tongue that also meant language.
And then down the Latin branch, we have lang, which also means language.
So both of those words capturing the same idea, but going down different paths.
So that’s the basic story of the word language.
You can see there’s in these Etymonline articles you can see more information about different forms of it, some details about how it changed, like how it got the u in there, and there’s some examples of different usages of it, because meanings are always shifting and words can start to be used in different ways.
But that is the story of dnghu becoming lingua to linguaticum and then langage, and then this Old French langage, in all middle English langage, and finally the modern English word language.
So that one’s a little bit more complicated than the word ‘word’.
You can see that one had one of the simplest possible etymologies.
This one went through a few twists and turns.
But that’s how we got this word.