Sunday, April 19, 2009

North and West Germanic

I love languages. Doesn't everybody? Some words are just magic to me, I can look at them & say them to myself over & over and just marinate in their wonderfulness. Like having a Manhattan, but without the glass, ice, vermouth, whiskey, and bitters.

My absolute favorite word is daughter...daughter...daughter...where was I? Oh yeah. Now, I have two daughters, but I liked the word before I was married and had them. And while I like the word, I love my daughters. And I like to call them daughter, as in "Daughter Alexandra, please feed the dogs," or "Daughter Francesca, please take out the trash," or "Daughters! Dinner!" Plus it's a little tribute to my 5th & 7th grade teacher, Sr. Alphonsus. Her father addressed her as 'daughter' when she was a girl, and I am still taken with that. I am not digressing.

Anyway, one of the things I like about daughter is it looks old, sounds old, and means something old. To say it is to remind myself that parents have been making essentially that same sound for more than a thousand years in many languages. It makes me feel a kinship with with all those millions, to make a sound meaning girl offspring and know they'd recognize it, even if they didn't speak modern English, or English at all, for that matter.

Now, we don't say daughter as it's spelled....but we used to. Imagine saying it, oh, a mere 1,000 years ago: dochter, with a ch as in Loch Ness. that sounds like real English: thick & unhurried, like a pint of stout. That's actually how the Dutch say it today: dochter. Which is close to modern German: tochter. And how we do say it today, dottir, is how it's spelled in Iceland and Norway; datter in Danish; dotter in Swedish, you get the picture, they're all North or West Germanic, no surprises.

One of our dottirs is adopted from Russia. Russian's an East Slavic tongue. I'd expect Russians to say something all Russiany such as.... zhelinka. I just made that does sound good though, doesn't it? "Zhelinka Aleksandra, please feed the dogs." I like that.

But nooOOOoooo, the Russian word is дочь, doch! (dotch, with a longer o than botch or notch) Doesn't seem all that Russian to me. How'd that Germanic word get into Russian?

Ah...turns out doch is Russian, part of the Balto-Slavic family, it's not borrowing. It's older than West Germanic and Balto-Slavic. So, how far back does daughter go in some form? Farther back in time than we can tell from written records, considering that even ancient (as in ancient Greek) languages in India and Persia used similar words. Scholars, speculating on an original, prehistoric source language labeled 'Indo-European' (not a real language), propose a proto-word for daughter, dhugheter, that would date from at least 2500 BC to as far back as 10,000 BC.

Imagine me going back 12,000 years and showing some nomad in Asia a pic of my girls, saying 'daughter' to him, and him understanding me just fine. In a single word a dozen millennia vanish. One of the most ancient sounds ever made by humans, and in spite of all the time and space and development and knowledge and sophistication that lies between us and that dimmest of pasts, we still make that same primal sound all around the world today. Daughter....daughter.

And my word, that is important to me. People die, but language lives. Ebbs, flows, gets thinner, thicker, shorter, longer, more spunky, more smooth, moves to the front of the mouth, to the back, becomes what each generation thinks is beautiful. Like the people who create it as they use it, it won't be limited by outside forces, defies efforts to control it. It's handed down through time out of mind, a living connection to the past like the laying on of hands. Our ancestors burst out of us every time we speak.

As Shakespeare would say, what a piece of work is Man.

I do love languages.

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