Arv’s comments on last week’s Wordy Wednesday post reminded me of some of what stirred my interest in the history of language. Reading about the unexpected discovery in the nineteenth century of the great similarities between words in Sanskrit, the ancient written language of much of the Indian Subcontinent, and words in Ancient Greek and Latin which were a starting point for the study of Linguistics, was something that fascinated me.
The word for ‘father‘, for example, is ‘pita‘ in Sanskrit, and ‘pater‘ in Latin and Greek.
The word for ‘mother‘ is ‘mata‘ in Sanskrit, ‘mater‘ in Latin and ‘meter‘ in Greek.
The word ‘Aryan‘, actually has the meaning of noble or honourable in Sanskrit (arya), which in Latin becomes ‘ariana‘ (holy) and in Ancient Greek ‘areia‘.
And there are other, seemingly more unlikely, connections.
The word for ‘horse‘ is ‘aswa‘ in Sanskrit, and ‘asva‘ in Lithuanian!
Whether the implications behind this are that there was a great mixing of peoples in those days and that different civilisations adopted words from the others, or that all these languages descended from one single, now lost, language in the distant past, can never be known for certain, but the evidence for the latter is extremely strong, especially as the world population was so much smaller then.
Modern research suggests that Sanskrit, spoken by the ancient tribes of India who called themselves ‘Aryans’, entered the Indian subcontinent from the north west, an area both closer to modern day Europe (and its languages) and to the source of the original migration of peoples out of Africa.
Of course, the theory of a single original language puts me in mind of the myth of the Tower of Babel…
My interest was also stirred by a number of similarities I came across when I was travelling or working overseas. One example will suffice:
‘Cat‘ is ‘chat‘ in French, ‘gato‘ in Spanish and Portuguese ‘katz‘ in German, ‘kot‘ in Polish, ‘kot‘ in Russian and ‘kitta‘ in Arabic.
I think the real significance of these similarities is that when you consider it logically, I don’t suppose that the speakers of all these languages were just waiting for someone to come along and give them a useful word for the furry mouse-catchers they had hanging around their villages and towns. It seems entirely probable that they all contain similar words because all those languages descended from one common source.
And this all leads me to one final thought (deep breath!)…in this ancient, lost, original language of our distant ancestors, we can be fairly certain, for example, that the word for ‘father‘ was something similar to most of its derivatives in use today. As well as the Latin, Greek and Sanskrit examples above, it is ‘padre‘ in Spanish, ‘pere‘ in French, and ‘vater‘ in German.
We may not be able to reconstruct this language (although in the future, who knows?), but we can certainly make a good guess at what a number of its words were, and they were words that most of us are familiar with today.