The English Word That Hasn't Changed in Sound or Meaning in 8,000 Years
May 16, 2019 11:50 AM   Subscribe

The word lox was one of the clues that eventually led linguists to discover who the Proto-Indo-Europeans were, and where they lived. 1250 words from Sevindj Nurkiyazova for Nautilus.
posted by cgc373 (35 comments total) 38 users marked this as a favorite
 
It's nice to know that the more things change, the more at least one thing remains the same.
posted by hippybear at 12:08 PM on May 16 [3 favorites]


That was really interesting, especially how they were able to locate the origin area by mapping out the ancient words and also identify the mechanism that spread the language.
posted by snofoam at 12:08 PM on May 16 [5 favorites]


They're just gonna drop that "yoga"-"yoke" connection in there and leave it with no explanation?
posted by clawsoon at 12:19 PM on May 16 [6 favorites]


They didn't even cover my very on brand favorite - beer. (funny the number of foods/beverages that fall into that key vocab group)
posted by drewbage1847 at 12:20 PM on May 16


There was a podcast I recently listened to (Radiolab, I think?) that was trying to sort out the "oldest word" in English (as in, a word in English that you could say to a person speaking a precursor of English) and I think the thing they landed on was "Mama".
posted by Rock Steady at 12:20 PM on May 16 [3 favorites]


clawsoon Yoga literally means connection or union; a joining.
Further, the sanskrit word for yoke appears to be "yuj."
All related to the 'jug' in words like conjugate, I believe.
posted by Glomar response at 12:30 PM on May 16 [21 favorites]


Reminds me of the factoid that I picked up a long time ago to the effect that the "ah" sound is the only one in every language.
posted by Halloween Jack at 12:43 PM on May 16 [3 favorites]


>today, roughly half the world’s population speaks an Indo-European language.

True I guess, but making it sound like a measure of the success of a linguistic theory is kind of strange...
posted by kleinsteradikaleminderheit at 12:47 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


To expand on Glomar response's comment, here's the etymology via Wiktionary (for those who may not know, a leading asterisk indicates a reconstructed word that is unattested in any written source):
Borrowed from Sanskrit योग (yóga, “yoking, union”), from Proto-Indo-Aryan *yáwgas, from Proto-Indo-Iranian *yáwgas, from Proto-Indo-European *yéwg-o-s, from *yewg- (“to join”) (whence also yoke).
posted by zombieflanders at 12:52 PM on May 16 [4 favorites]


They're just gonna drop that "yoga"-"yoke" connection in there and leave it with no explanation?

Emphasis mine:
yoke (n.)

Old English geoc "contrivance for fastening a pair of draft animals," earlier geoht "pair of draft animals" (especially oxen), from Proto-Germanic *yukam (source also of Old Saxon juk, Old Norse ok, Danish aag, Middle Dutch joc, Dutch juk, Old High German joh, German joch, Gothic juk "yoke"), from PIE root *yeug- "to join." Figurative sense of "heavy burden, oppression, servitude" was in Old English.

yoga (n.)

1820, from Hindi yoga, from Sanskrit yoga-s, literally "union, yoking" (with the Supreme Spirit), from PIE root *yeug- "to join." Related: Yogic.
posted by The Tensor at 12:54 PM on May 16 [6 favorites]


Just last night, I was watching this episode of PBS' Nova, which was about the domestication of horses and the Yamnaya culture, which spread the PIE language.
posted by vibrotronica at 1:08 PM on May 16 [3 favorites]


Mouse and louse are also quite well preserved and have rhymed since PIE.
posted by sjswitzer at 1:40 PM on May 16 [5 favorites]


I thought the use of lox in English came from Jiddisch?

Anyway, tomorrow is a holiday here, and I have bought some expensive lox and I have a sourdough starter working in a bowl. The starter is the beginning of a rye bread with caraway seeds which will go under my lox tomorrow evening. I hope by then, the use of the word lox in English will be explained convincingly. Also, I need to decide wether to use cream cheese or butter.
posted by mumimor at 1:44 PM on May 16 [5 favorites]


Yiddish is an Indo-European language; it has heavy borrowing from Hebrew (both words and sentence structure), but at the heart it's still Germanic.
posted by jb at 2:12 PM on May 16 [7 favorites]


Yiddish is an Indo-European language; it has heavy borrowing from Hebrew (both words and sentence structure), but at the heart it's still Germanic.
I know that. It doesn't change that it is maybe relatively new to English.
posted by mumimor at 2:14 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


The word also appears in much the same form in the Voynich manuscript...
posted by uosuaq at 2:16 PM on May 16 [17 favorites]


I know that. It doesn't change that it is maybe relatively new to English.

It is a borrowing from Yiddish; English lost "our" descendant from PIE *laks, except for in Scottish English.

So while it's not incorrect to say "English has a word whose sound and meaning is the same as it was in PIE", it's a little misleading, because the original version of the word disappeared from most varieties of English, before being re-introduced via borrowing.
posted by damayanti at 2:22 PM on May 16 [20 favorites]


I know that. It doesn't change that it is maybe relatively new to English.

And doesn't get used at all in British English, including in London's Jewish community. Although people will know what it means from American media.

Scots has "laks" for salmon though which is of the same origin.
posted by atrazine at 2:22 PM on May 16 [4 favorites]


It's a good article on the whole, but every pop linguistics article contains at least one howler, and this one's no exception:

For example, sound [k] changed to [h] from Latin to Germanic, and the Latin word casa transformed into the English house.

Uh-uh. Germanic doesn't come from Latin and house doesn't come from casa; in fact it's unlikely that the words are related at all.

Some of the things Prof. Guy says are a little dubious too. Walk isn't actually a particularly diachronically stable word -- the English word doesn't even have cognates with the same sense in Germanic, let alone elsewhere in IE. And this --

“You collect words that mean more or less the same thing in all the languages, and if they look like each other in terms of their pronunciation, then it’s a good candidate for a descendant from a common ancestor”

-- is good as a description of how you might go about trying to set up a language family in the first place, but really what historical linguists work with are regular sound correspondences, which aren't at all the same as similarities in pronunciation. If anything the latter can be misleading as they're often due to borrowing.

Finally, in terms of where PIE speakers lived, finding out that they had a word for salmon is a little less probative than you might think: there are several species of salmons and salmonids with different geographical distributions. It used to be assumed that this was the Atlantic salmon, Salmo salar, placing PIE speakers in northern Europe, but these days it's thought to have more likely been the salmon trout, Salmo trutta, which is unhelpfully found in much of Eurasia.
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 3:03 PM on May 16 [26 favorites]


I love this sort of historical linguistics reconstruction but I always wish they did more to publish error bars on their estimates. It'd help to understand what we actually know vs. speculate. Also to reconcile the disagreement with genetic reconstructions. IIRC, the current state of the art of anthropology has two very different histories for the Americas depending on whether you believe the linguists or the geneticists. That's OK! Science takes time!
posted by Nelson at 3:40 PM on May 16 [3 favorites]


Coincidentally, the world's second-oldest word was schmear.
posted by Mchelly at 5:10 PM on May 16 [23 favorites]


Previously (2013) on ultraconserved words potentially more than 15,000 years old, which examines cognates from other language groups in addition to Indo-European languages.
posted by larrybob at 5:32 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


I thought "if they had a word for it we can locate them geographically" was a bit questionable. For instance, the American robin is nothing like the English robin, though they are both birds (and dinosaurs). As people move from place to place, they may use a word for something similar, if their new location doesn't have whatever it originally named. An interesting article, though.
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 6:11 PM on May 16 [3 favorites]


I was wondering if "lox" for salmon and "loch" for lake in Irish/Gaelic were related and sure enough:
Borrowed from Scottish Gaelic loch,[1] ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *lókus (“pond; pool”). --> "I got some of those pond guys for dinner"
posted by bleep at 6:28 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


"Those guys we saw heading for the pond"

I also have a theory/fanfic that the name for the Celts was basically the Romans talking about "those spooky fuckers".
posted by bleep at 6:33 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


I majored in Religious Studies at UC Santa Barbara. In a class on Hinduism, the professor said that he didn’t want to hear anymore about how yoga means union as in yoke. He then introduced the famous yogi, Satchadinanda, who began by saying “Yoga means union, like your word yoke.” The professor looked very annoyed.
posted by njohnson23 at 6:47 PM on May 16 [17 favorites]


All related to the 'jug' in words like conjugate, I believe.

Leiber knew more than he knew, I guess, in depicting Fafhrd bound, or yoked, to a bedstead as an avatar of one Issek of the Jug.
posted by mwhybark at 7:16 PM on May 16 [1 favorite]


There is hardly a more quintessential New York food than a lox bagel—a century-old popular appetizing store, Russ & Daughters, calls it “The Classic.”

such a gigantic shiksa that I had to look up what an appetizing store was:

An appetizing store, typically in reference to Jewish cuisine, is best understood as a store that sells "the foods one eats with bagels."

I am delighted that this is a thing.

more on topic: my favorite piece of English language trivia is that our words for food meat (mutton, pork, beef) are derived from Norman French, while our words for food meat animals (sheep, pig, cow) are Anglo-Saxon in origin, suggesting that only the danged Norman invaders could afford a nice meat meal
posted by taquito sunrise at 7:21 PM on May 16 [4 favorites]


Also, we use the French words for dried fruits. (plum, grape, cranberry) -> (prune, raisin, craisin). Note that I may have embellished part of this comment.
posted by Pruitt-Igoe at 7:39 PM on May 16 [7 favorites]


I thought "if they had a word for it we can locate them geographically" was a bit questionable. For instance, the American robin is nothing like the English robin, though they are both birds (and dinosaurs). As people move from place to place, they may use a word for something similar, if their new location doesn't have whatever it originally named. An interesting article, though.

This overlooks the divergence and splintering of the ur-population.

If "they" moved to a new place and started using the word robin to apply to a different species before they splintered, then it is still the case that the ur-population is "from" that new place.

On the other hand if only some descendants moved out and adopted the word to different species after that then the different descendants would be using the same word differently, and it would be obvious that it's meaning changed in some languages over time. The word clearly referred to something that occurred in the original homeland but not necessarily the same thing it does today. You can try to reverse engineer what was meant though.

A few years ago the book The Horse, the Wheel and Language covered the attempt to reconstruct the homeland (and language and culture.) I found the linguistics part at the beginning fascinating and the archaeology a slog, but the conclusions seem to be holding up as we add genetic evidence.

It's definitely the case that you don't just do language to determine origin but it helps bound the decision.

Bonus trivia from the book that was enlightening to me: "The wheel" is not a simple invention. Very easy to make a circular slab "wheel" but a spoked wheel is a masterful piece of carpentry and not something easy to invent.
posted by mark k at 8:34 PM on May 16 [4 favorites]


I was wondering if "lox" for salmon and "loch" for lake in Irish/Gaelic were related and sure enough:
Borrowed from Scottish Gaelic loch,[1] ultimately from Proto-Indo-European *lókus (“pond; pool”). --> "I got some of those pond guys for dinner"


Just to be clear, the etymologies I'm finding for lox and loch derive them from different Proto-Indo-European words: *laḱs- ("salmon, trout") and *lókus ("pool, pond").
posted by The Tensor at 11:15 PM on May 16 [2 favorites]


every pop linguistics article contains at least one howler

I would love any recommendations on more responsible pop linguistic articles or books. I'm fascinated with this subject, and would like to know more! I spent a few years learning Georgian, which is nearby, it seems, to the PIE-speaking community, and yet is not an indo-european language. Wild!
posted by heyitsgogi at 7:31 AM on May 17


Reminds me of the factoid that I picked up a long time ago to the effect that the "ah" sound is the only one in every language.

Oh ?
Mmmm...
Uh...

Ah!
posted by y2karl at 10:06 AM on May 17


Although [British] people will know what it means from American media.

Afraid not; I'd never heard it, or of it, before reading the article.
posted by vincebowdren at 7:36 AM on May 18


I would love any recommendations on more responsible pop linguistic articles or books.

John McWhorter is great - in addition to writing for The Atlantic, he has a podcast at Slate.

I also highly recommend The History Of English podcast. The first dozen or so episodes deal directly with the Proto-Indo-European language.
posted by tivalasvegas at 7:16 AM on May 20 [3 favorites]


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