Issue 182, page 1
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In our previous issue we discussed the descendants of the Indo-European root *keu-, a list which includes not only cup, coop, and cube but also hip, hop and hoop. This occasioned one reader to state that he would, naturally, take our word for it but expressed bafflement nonetheless. How does a K turn into an H? Well, the short answer is that it simply does. Sometimes.
Consonants, as spoken, tend to drift over time and this drifting is often made more apparent by geographical separation. At the time of the Roman Empire, people in Italy, France and Spain made bread with farina (Latin, "flour"). Italians still use farina, the French bake with farine but in Spain it has become harina (Spanish, "flour"). In this instance the parent language, Latin, is well known but in many cases the consonant shifts happened before a language was ever written, as with Indo-European. Take, for example, the English word brother. Similar words for "brother" are found throughout the European languages and even in Iranian and the languages of northern India: Old English brošor, Dutch broeder, Welsh brawd, Russian brat, Avestan (an ancient Persian language) bratar, Sanskrit bhratar, Greek phrater and Latin frater. As none of these languages evolved from any of the others, we can assume that they share a prehistoric ancestor. We call that ancestor Indo-European though, technically, we should write that *Indo-European, with an asterisk to indicate that it is hypothetical and unrecorded.
You may be wondering about phrater andfrater. All the other languages had words beginning with br- orbhr- but Latin and Greek have a fr- sound. What gives? Well, the Indo-European consonant bh- shifted to f- in just two languages, Latin and Greek. Notice that French, being derived from Latin, has frčre "brother".
One of the interesting properties of consonant shifts is that they tend to re-occur independently. Thus, where one language will have an h, another will have an s. This h-s equivalence is to be seen in Greek and Latin - words such as hexa, hepta, and herpes (Greek for "six","seven", and "snake") are clearly cognate with sexa, septa, and serpens (Latin for "six","seven", and "snake"). Precisely the same h-s parallel is also to be found in a completely separate branch of the Indo-European family: ahura and haoma, ("god" and "nectar") in Avestan are asura and soma ("demi-god" and "nectar") in Sanskrit.
Here is a chart of some known correspondences between the consonants of the Indo-European languages.
If you take a look at the third column, you will see that a k in Indo-European translates to a c in Latin but it becomes an h in Old English. Thus, Latin inherited the Indo-European *keu- ("bent", "curved", "domed") as cu- (cube, etc.) while English has words beginning with h- (like hoop, heap, and height). The Greek equivalent is k but, as we acquired most of our Greek words from Latin, this usually became softened to a c (as in cymbal).
Now let's see how brother works in this scheme. For the sake of clarity we have eliminated all but the relevant letters and repeated the r.
Works pretty well, doesn't it?
In case you were wondering...
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Last Updated 04/23/03 08:06 AM