English as a Germanic Language, #1

In these posts I want to give an overview of the four aspects of philology: historical linguistics, the editing of texts, the interpretation of meaning in context, and literary criticism with a particular attention to language. I haven’t posted on the editing of texts yet, but that will come in a week or two. This week I want to return to some historical linguistics, by way of a brief glance at some of the structure of the English vocabulary.

English has two different sets of words for the body and its parts, two registers—everyday words and technical terms. Here are some of the everyday words for the parts of the body:

hair                 head               brain               skull                mouth

tooth               tongue            eye                  nose                ear

throat             neck                heart               liver                bladder

bone               arm                 hand               finger              skin

gut                  foot                 blood

And here are some more or less technical terms having to do with health and the body:

neurology                   orthodontist               hematology

encephelograph        psychiatry                  ophthalmology

rhinoplasty                rhinitis                        otorhinolaryngologist

otitis                            esophagus                  cardiology

podiatry                     hepatitis                     cystitis

oncologist                   gastroenteritis           iatrogenic

uterus                         hysterectomy             dermatology

These technical terms derive from Greek and Latin words. Cardiology derives from the Greek kard-, meaning “heart”; ophthalmology comes from the Greek ophthalmos, meaning “eye”; there is also a related Greek form opt-, from which we get optometrist, and the Latin oculus gives us oculist.

Many medical words ending in “-itis” indicate an inflammation or infection. Hepatitis is an inflammation of the liver, from the Greek hepar, while cystitis is a bladder infection, from the Greek for ‘bladder’, kystis. Otitis, an ear inflammation, comes from the Greek oto-, meaning ear, while laryngitis comes from the Greek larynx, and rhinitis, or a runny nose, comes from Greek rhin-, which means “nose”, and the word for nose surgery is rhinoplasty. An otorhinolaryngologist is an ear, nose, and throat doctor.

The ordinary words for the parts of the body go back to the period of Old English, roughly 500 to 1150. The technical words for health, however, are not generally found in English until quite a bit later. Esophagus and thorax are found in 1398 and 1400; intestine is found in 1598; uterus in 1615 (whereas womb is Old English); neurology in 1681; hepatitis in 1728; cystitis in 1778; hematology in 1811; dermatology in 1813; gastroenteritis in 1825; psychiatry in 1828; oncology in 1857; hysterectomy in 1886; podiatry in 1914; and encephalography in 1922.

Some of the Greek and Latin medical words sound technical, but others have entered ordinary speech. The word dentist is derived from the Latin dens, which means “tooth”. In Greek “tooth” is dons, while ortho– means “straight”, so an orthodontist straightens your teeth. The word arthritis, which comes from the Greek word for “joint”, started out as a technical term, but it now it is an everyday word. But arthropod, meaning an invertebrate animal with an exoskeleton and jointed limbs, such as insects and spiders and lobsters, remains a technical word. The word doctor, which comes from the Latin verb doceo, “to teach”, is hardly technical; but the suffixes –iatry and –iatrist, as in psychiatry or podiatrist, come from the Greek iatros, meaning ‘doctor’, and an iatrogenic disease is a disease that is caused by medical treatment.

Many of the ordinary English words for health and the body are very similar to German words. The French and Spanish words with the same meaning are similar to each other but different from the English and German words:

            English           German          French           Spanish

            arm                 Arm                 bras                brazo

            hand               Hand               main               mano

            finger              Finger             doigt               dedo

            blood              Blut                 sang                sangre

            heart               Herz                coeur              corazón

            foot                 Fuss                pied                pie

            tongue            Zunge             langue           lengua

English and German are closely related—they are both members of the Germanic family of languages; languages such as French and Spanish, which are descended from Latin, are members of the Romance family. The Germanic languages and the Romance languages belong to a larger group of languages, the Indo-European languages. I will have more to say about language families in later posts.

We know that English is a Germanic language precisely because we find many pairs such as those listed above (and because of other kinds of evidence). In addition to the words about the body, there are many other words in English and German that are very similar:

            English           German          English           German

            nest                 Nest                wolf                 Wolf

            ring                 Ring                hammer         Hammer

            rose                 Rose                sack                 Sack

            warm              warm              winter            Winter

            mild                mild                hunger           Hunger

            bitter              bitter              plan (noun)   Plan

The spelling of these English and German words is the same, but the words are pronounced differently. Some differences are easy to describe: the German letter “w”, for example, is pronounced like the English “v”, so German “Wolf” is pronounced “volf”. Some of the differences, however, such as the precise sounds of the vowels, are harder to state precisely without some technical terminology.

In addition to these words which are identical in English and German, at least in spelling, there are many that are similar but not identical, with changes which are often quite regular and predictable. Consider these words:

            German          English           German          English

            Tanz                dance              Tür                  door

            Tag                  day                  Tochter           daughter

            trinken           to drink          Traum             dream

            tief                  deep               Tod                  death

In all of these, an initial “t” in German corresponds to an initial “d” in English. (There are other differences, as well, some of which are also quite regular.) Further examples show the same correspondence in the middle and at the end of words:

Gott                 God                 gut                  good

selten              seldom            Seite                side

gleiten            (to) glide

So we can propose a possible rule, that German “t” corresponds to English “d”. We will need more evidence to say which spelling is closer to the original Germanic form; at this point we are just noting the correspondence. Other pairs of words will show other correspondences. Sometimes the correspondences have to be stated in a more complex form, but that’s for another time.

I’m always interested in feedback, so please add your own comments and let me know what works and what doesn’t work.

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