Words are strange

I love language. All languages. All words and dialects. The study of language entertains and intrigues me. Words. What are they? Utterances that embody objects that sometimes change, sometimes die out. These utterances were eventually written down, lines and pictures strung together to give form to those utterances. On rock, vellum, papyrus, wood*. Scribes created lists that tell us what our long-ago ancestors bought, sold, traded. Those who knew how to create and translate such things were magical. Then came those who compiled more than lists; they put those lines and curves of utterances to work telling stories. They created books.

Words. Lists. Stories. Books. Magical things. Spells cast and generations of humanity enthralled by these simple lines and curves joined together to make words that call up those utterances once only spoken. It wasn’t so long ago that this magic was reserved for the wealthy, for those with leisure time to learn how these strung-together symbols made words into stories, into histories.

All this got me to thinking, about the ever-present alien looking down on Earth, trying to figure out what we are doing, staring at lines and symbols**, in print and on screen. I imagine it wondering, “What is so intriguing about those squiggles that so many will stare at them for hours?” And that led into me thinking about how easy, how thrilling it is to lose oneself in a story, but also how odd. Sitting in one place (or not) staring at words that make a story that creates a whole world inside our heads–how does that even happen? What is the science behind it? Or is it, as our ancestors must have believed, truly magic?

Why does H O U S E mean the edifice one lives in? Where did that word come from? Not house, itself. I know it is from the Proto-Germanic word, husan. Before that, it might have been Goth. But what about before that? How did words come to mean things? Who grunted the first sounds that would become house?

And I am intrigued all over again, a circle I never tire of spinning round and around. Maybe I’m weird, but I have a feeling many of you reading this get it completely.

*Did you know that runes are mostly slanted versions of the Roman alphabet? Why slanted? Because they were being carved into wood, and the grain of wood made getting it consistently legible with straight, horizontal lines a bit precarious.

**Because not all languages on Earth have a writing system, so maybe aliens don’t either. There are some 7,105 living languages, and only 3,570 have a developed writing system.

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13 Comments

Filed under Grammar

13 responses to “Words are strange

  1. Did you know all words can be traced to the Greeks and Windex fixes all physical ailments? Oh and did you know your friend Sharon is s smartest 😃 great post! Just amusing myself.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      Hahaha! Gotta love autocorrect. Sometimes it writes for me! And other times it makes me the fool. Insidious. Now excuse me while I put a little Windex on it…

      Like

  2. Lol it should say I am a smartass! Auto correct!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating! What made one person use the sounds that made the word, ‘book’ & another choose ‘llyfr.’ (I know!)

    According to Monica Sjöö & Barbara Mor in The Great Cosmic Mother, women invented writing – two thousand years before the development of Sumerian ‘literate’ civilisation.

    Good, eh? 😉
    xXx

    Liked by 2 people

    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      And yet, some words are almost universal even if they don’t seem so to begin with. Vowels shift and consonants change form, but if you know letters switched and when, we can see how pater, padre, pere, vater, and father are all essentially the same word. Then there’s the baba so common to Sino-Tibetan based languages, as well as papa in Slavic (not universally, but common) and you can see too where those words could have come from the same root. So cool.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I totally get this. I have often wondered how words came to mean what they mean. And some are so universal, like mama or papa, you know they had to come from the same origin. Was it just because so many babies made those sounds when they were first learning to identify their parents? So all the tribes just adopted those as THE words for parents? See, now I’m going to be pondering this sort of thing all day…. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      This is why I have several linguistics courses on hand at all times. I listen whenever I’m in the car. 🙂

      Like

    • This has always been my suspicion. I think “mama” and “papa” might be thought of as primordial words; sounds made by babies that were attached to the parent-child relationship. What’s especially interesting, if this is true, is that they’ve likely conserved their original form over thousands of years. Not the case for many other words, some of which may have evolved a long way from their point of origin.

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      • Terri-Lynne DeFino

        Karin, Babies make the sound/s, adults assign the meaning. The mmm in mama is nasal sound–which is harder, but a more easily made without having to open the mouth, like when we’re eating. Thus, mmmma is mama. And mmmmm means yummy. 🙂 Mama is more universal than the words for father, which run the gamut of labial and…up against the teeth…can’t remember what the right word is…sounds. Da and ta being the teeth thing, and b and p being the labial. These are easier sounds for a baby to make, and one that can be made out of context where a nursing baby is concerned. It explains why mmm got assigned to mothers and the other sounds to fathers.

        Cool, huh?

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Love the sound of language and people’s choice of words. Says so much about them. Endlessly fascinating subject.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      I get so excited whenever the Teaching Company (Great Courses) comes out with a new linguistics course. I have THREE new ones! Woohoo!

      Like

  6. My junior high English teacher was fascinated by words that sounded like and/or physically represented the concept they express. For example, when we say “blow” we actually blow air. There are other examples like that, but this is the one that always sticks in my head.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Terri-Lynne DeFino

      I just learned something really cool, more about cryptology than linguistics, but the letter A was originally assigned because of the word oxen. If you turn an A upside down, it looks like a crude ox’s head, right? The sound of A is the sound of the first letter in oxen–the short ‘a’ sound. It got turned around, first sideways and then “upright.” Not exactly sure why. Back and back, the symbol A simply stood in for the word oxen. Then evolution happens. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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